Jaguars formula the key to playoff success for Wentz-less Eagles
In the NFL, one play can define a season.
The Philadelphia Eagles were offered a brutal reminder of that reality last Sunday as quarterback Carson Wentz, the primary architect of their stunning 11-2 season, suffered a season-ending knee injury in their 43-35 win over the Los Angeles Rams.
That victory clinched the NFC East for Philadelphia, however, it was perhaps the most the pyrrhic triumph of recent memory, with the Eagles' prospects for the postseason looking bleak after it was confirmed on Monday that Wentz had torn his ACL.
Selected second in the 2016 draft after the Eagles traded away a plethora of draft picks to move up and get him, Wentz came into the NFL with plenty of questions surrounding his ability to adapt to the pros after a productive career at North Dakota State, a powerhouse in college football's second tier, the FCS.
Those questions were largely unanswered in a rookie year where he threw just 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions as an Eagles team low of weapons on offense limped to a 7-9 record.
But this season the Eagles have surrounded him with talent, adding Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to the receiving core while also signing running back LeGarrette Blount and pulling off a mid-season trade with the Miami Dolphins to bring Jay Ajayi into the backfield.
The results have been spectacular, with the Eagles' offense ranked third in the league in yards per game and Wentz flourishing with 33 passing touchdowns despite injuries to the offensive line, showing an extremely impressive ability to consistently shake off hits from defenders and make accurate throws off-balance and on the run.
33 - Prior to his injury, Carson Wentz set the Eagles franchise record for most passing touchdowns in a season with 33. Pyrrhic? pic.twitter.com/vX6xVP29Zs-- OptaJerry (@OptaJerry) December 11, 2017
Wentz's excellent season has been brilliantly complemented by an outstanding defense that boasts superb depth on the front seven and stepped up to secure victory against the surprise package Rams after his injury, Chris Long's sack of Jared Goff forcing a fumble that proved the key play in an absorbing encounter.
Yet Wentz's style of play and tendency for taking hits always had a chance of leading to a season-changing injury and, with him on the shelf, it is the defense and the talent-laden backfield that will have to carry the load if the Eagles are to have a shot in the playoffs.
Nick Foles comes in as Wentz's replacement and the expectations will be low. Foles was once seen as the future in Philadelphia after a 2013 season in which he led the NFL in touchdown percentage, but his struggles in the subsequent campaign and in his stint with the then St. Louis Rams led to him returning the Eagles from the Kansas City Chiefs as a backup.
There has been nothing outside of his 2013 performance to suggest Foles can succeed on a regular basis, and his inability to make plays outside of the pocket as Wentz does means he is quite a significant downgrade.
Solace for the Eagles comes in the fact that they are at least assured of postseason play and have a decent route to potential home-field advantage with a road game against the 2-11 New York Giants and home contests with the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys to come.
To seal home field throughout the playoffs and have a chance at a Super Bowl berth, the Eagles will need to replicate the formula of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are on the brink of the postseason with a below-average quarterback in Blake Bortles, who has been supported by a proficient running game helmed by rookie Leonard Fournette and a defense leading the league in turnovers with 30.
That combination has taken the pressure off Bortles, as Fournette and the defense have won games for the Jaguars on numerous occasions.
Philadelphia's secondary is not of the same calibre as Jacksonville's but they still have 24 turnovers on the season and, as was proven in Los Angeles, the Eagles' defense can be deciding factor in games.
For the Wentz-less Eagles to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the defense may require more game-winning performances, while Ajayi, Blount and backfield mates Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner will need to become the focal point in what should now be a ball control attack with Foles asked to do as little as possible.
And at their raucous Lincoln Financial Field home in January, it is formula that can be successful.
Not since 1996-99 - when they went to two AFC Championship games in four successive years - has taking inspiration from the Jaguars been considered a good idea. But in a season considered one of the strangest in modern NFL history, it is fitting that the Eagles may have to do so to not have their campaign defined by one hit.