So, this is how it ends.
The 10-1 start. The Super Bowl talk. It’s all wiped out. The Eagles can start thinking about 2024 on New Year’s Eve, after losing for the fourth time in their last five games, suffering their biggest upset in years by visiting Jonathan Gannon and the woeful Arizona Cardinals, 35-31, on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Arizona, which entered the game 3-12 and ranked 24th in the NFL in total offense and 27th in total defense, scored a season-high 35 points against the Eagles, who had far more to play for and are now seemingly through until July 2024 when training camp begins.
The Cardinals never punted. They gashed the Eagles for a season-best 449 yards in total offense, rushing for 221 yards and commanding the time of possession, 39:39 to 20:21. Kyler Murray completed 25 of 31 passes for 232 yards and a season-best three touchdown passes. Arizona’s season-high 32 first downs is the second most allowed by any NFL team this season.
The Eagles blew a 21-6 halftime lead, though the signs were there that this time, the Eagles would not be just getting by as they have numerous times this season.
If they were supposed to be as elite as their fanbase and the Eagles themselves say they were, the Eagles should not have been tied 28-28 late in the fourth quarter against the NFC West last-place Cardinals. This was an Arizona team that had its 16th different defensive lineup in 16 games. It was a team that gave up 420 total yards in a Week 16 loss to the anemic Chicago Bears’ offense.
With the Eagles’ disastrous loss, San Francisco clinched home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Ask yourself this: Would the Eagles be in this fix defensively if the much maligned (in Philadelphia, respected everywhere else) Gannon were still the Eagles’ defensive coordinator?
Would Gannon have had 240-pound edge rusher Haason Reddick down inside against Arizona’s 6-foot-6, 313-pound right tackle Paris Johnson Jr. on James Conner’s two-yard game-winning score?
“Stick together, stick together, everybody has to stick together, I think there is going to be a lot of people that are going to try to point the finger at different things and everybody has to stick together,” Eagles’ coach Nick Sirianni said in reference to what his message is to his team after this debacle. “Together is the most important thing we can be right now. We’re in the playoffs and we can still do some things here. Can you still win the division? Yes. Stick together, because we still have goals, and we still have things we want to accomplish.
“We have to get things fixed and we have to get them fixed fast. We’re not where we want to be right yet as far as playing right now and how we’re coaching.”
“Concern,” he said, “does not get things fixed.”
That will up to everyone else looking from the outside in—and it is obvious that there is much wrong defensively. This is a very disjointed team groping for answers too late into the season.
The Eagles have clinched a playoff berth. They could still win the NFC East. But does that matter? Is this team capable of winning a playoff game, when they cannot beat the Arizona Cardinals at home in a meaningful December game?
This was awful. There was a pinch of good, while there were piles upon piles of bad and ugly in the Eagles’ 35-31 loss to the pitiful Arizona Cardinals in a game that was not even that close.
Kicker Jake Elliott booting a 43-yard field goal with 2:33 left to play.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts rolling right on third-and-four at the Arizona nine with just under 10 minutes to play. After a botched play and an Arizona offsides, Hurts scrambled to create time and found tight end Dallas Goedert in the front corner of the end zone for a nine-yard TD pass and a 28-21 Eagles’ lead with 9:55 to play. It was a gigantic play. The Eagles’ defense had stopped Arizona up until that point and the Eagles’ offense had not been particularly effective, either. But the score at least put the Eagles in a firmer position to win.
Running back Kenneth Gainwell’s 18-yard completion to DeVonta Smith to the Arizona 22 on a third-and-one with 24 seconds left in the half. The Eagles were lined up in the “Brotherly Shove” formation and pulled the fake off incredibly well. It aided the Eagles getting their second offensive touchdown.
Safety Sydney Brown’s 99-yard interception return for a touchdown on Arizona’s second possession. The play was actually made possible when Murray changed the third-and-seven play at the Eagles’ 24. Murray looked left at his receiver, Michael Wilson, who was jammed at the line of scrimmage by Eagles’ cornerback Eli Ricks. Murray’s early release wound up in the welcoming arms of Brown, who used a nice escort down the sideline before making a nifty cut at the 46 and ran down midfield for the score. Wilson cut in on the play instead of running toward the post corner and was at least 10 yards away from where the pass was intended to go—at least in Murray’s mind. It gave the Eagles a commanding 14-3 lead with 11:44 left in the first half—and in the process thwarted yet another Arizona drive deep into Eagles’ territory.
Defensive tackle Jalen Carter’s four-yard sack on Murray on Arizona’s second drive, putting a road bump in the Cardinals moving the ball again. The second-and-three play at the Eagles’ 20 pushed Arizona into a third-and-seven at the 24. The next play was Brown’s 99-yard interception return.
The Eagles’ second drive. It resulted in Hurts’ 36th touchdown passing or rushing this season, establishing a new Eagles’ single-season record. Hurts was a perfect four-for-four on the drive, which went 75 yards on nine plays and took 4:33 off the clock. More importantly, the score answered Arizona’s first drive, when the Cardinals easily marched down the field to the Eagles’ three.
Julio Jones’ first half. Hurts showed great touch on Jones’ 12-yard TD pass on the Eagles’ second drive. It gave the Eagles a 7-3 lead. Hurts spotted the ball perfectly, arcing over Arizona cornerback Starling Thomas in the corner of the end zone. It was Jones’ eighth catch as an Eagle—and second TD reception. Jones’ ninth catch—and third TD reception—was even more impressive, when Hurts’ pass was deflected by Cardinals’ nickel corner Andre Chachere. The ball came at Jones like a knuckleball, which Jones showed great concentration in catching it.
Running back D’Andre Swift going over 1,000 yards for the season on his six-yard carry up the middle on a first-and-10 at the Arizona 29 on the Eagles’ second possession of the game. It was Swift’s first 1,000-yard rushing season and it gave the Eagles three 1,000-yard players, with Swift joining 1,000-yard receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith this season.
Defensive tackle Milton Williams taking down Kyler Murray for a nine-yard loss on first-and-goal from the Eagles’ three on Arizona’s first drive. Williams forced a fumble (recovered by Murray) on what was the first quality play of the game for the Eagles offensively or defensively.
Hurts’ getting nailed for a three-yard loss with 3:00 left to play at the Arizona 29. The Eagles called their second timeout after the play to a chorus of boos.
Left tackle Jordan Mailata getting called for holding during a crucial moment in the game with 4:13 to play and the score tied at 28-28. The Eagles were faced with a first-and-10 at the Arizona 20 and were then looking at a first-and-20 at the Cardinals’ 30.
With 5:02 left in the third quarter, the recipe for disaster was certainly staring the Eagles in the face. Arizona had run 52 plays to the Eagles’ 24, had outgained the Eagles 286-157 and dominated time of possession, 30:08 to 9:50.
The Eagles’ first drive of the second half. They went three-and-out for the second time in the game, which suddenly took a tighter turn than it should have been—a continuing theme for the Eagles this entire season. The Eagles had a chance to answer Arizona’s opening third-quarter drive and failed to do so.
Ricks getting toasted by Cardinals’ running back Michael Carter on the Cardinals’ first drive of the second half. On a second-and-four at the Arizona 41, Ricks came up to tackle Carter, who faked him badly, leaving Ricks without his shoes and twisted for a 16-yard gain.
The Eagles’ second quarter, how odd this is. The Eagles took a 21-6 lead into intermission, thanks largely to Brown’s 99-yard interception return. But Arizona outgained the Eagles 113 to 75 in the quarter, ran off 23 plays to the Eagles’ nine and had eight first downs to the Eagles’ four. The Eagles did not run their first offensive play until there was 1:50 left in the quarter. By halftime, the Cardinals had ruled the time of possession with Arizona having the ball 21 minutes, 48 seconds, to the Eagles’ 8:12.
The Cardinals’ first play going for 26 yards. An early omen that a wealth of bad was coming. On Arizona’s very first play, did slot corner Avonte Maddox get caught out of position, coming forward and then finding tight end Trey McBride, or linebacker Shaq Leonard failing to not see McBride release free down the field? Whoever it was, it was not a good start giving a visiting inferior team like the Cardinals any hope at all.
Blown timeouts. Miscommunications in the 16th game of the season. It should not be happening in the eighth game of the season let alone the 16th game. It is inexcusable.
Nickel corner Avonte Maddox getting stung bad on a first-and-10 at the Eagles’ 41 with 1:23 left to play. It was the backbreaker. Greg Dortch beat Maddox to the ball and left him flailing before taking off unimpeded up the field. Safety Reed Blankenship missed Dortch when he cut back at the 12, before cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Ben VanSumeren finally pulled him down at the Eagles’ five. It set up James Conner’s game-winning score from the two. Conner finished with a game-high 128 yards on 26 carries. The Cardinals plowed over the Eagles for 221 yards rushing.
With 4:13 left to play, and no one knows what the play is. Julio Jones is seen shrugging, putting his hands out looking for direction from the sideline as if to say, “What are we doing,” then runs off the field while tight end Jack Stoll runs on to the field as the Eagles faced a first-and-20 at the Arizona 30. Failure to get the right personnel and the right play in is not something so-called Super Bowl-contending teams do in Game 16.
Cornerback Kelee Ringo getting burned in the end zone and flagged for a 29-yard interference call in the fourth quarter. The penalty, which was somewhat debatable, got the Cardinals going once again in response to the Hurts-to- Goedert score. Ringo, who had played well last week against the New York Giants, was caught flat footed on a fourth-and-four at the Eagles’ five on the tying touchdown with 5:26 to play. Murray found Michael Wilson, who cut inside and left the rookie Ringo standing there like a statue.
Red zone playcalling. With 10:02 left in the game, boos rained down on a sunny Sunday after the Eagles blew a second-and-two at the Cardinals’ seven. Hurts tried going right on a play that looked similar to the previous play that went left. This time, Arizona was there to greet Hurts, who slid down at the Cardinals’ 14, placing the Eagles in a third-and-nine. Fortunately, the Cardinals, being the Cardinals, blew it by jumping offsides and then forgetting Dallas Goedert in the end zone.
Arizona’s drive chart: Reached the Eagles’ 10 (Arizona field goal), reached the Eagles’ 24 (Brown pick six), reached the Eagles’ 16 (Arizona field goal), halftime, Arizona touchdown, Arizona touchdown, Arizona touchdown and Arizona touchdown. After three quarters, the score said 21-21. The stat sheet said something else: Cardinals had 24 first downs, the Eagles had 11; Arizona ran off 57 plays to the Eagles’ 28; the Cardinals had 331 yards of offense to the Eagles’ 196, and Arizona had 33:09 time of possession to the Eagles’ mere 11:51. What’s more, the Eagles had been outscored 30-0 in the third quarter against two double-digit underdogs in the last two weeks.
The Eagles’ first defensive series in the third quarter. The Cardinals were bound to score at least one touchdown the way they were moving up and down the field against the Eagles’ defense. The breakthrough finally came on Arizona’s first drive of the second half. On the three previous Arizona drives, the Cardinals got within the Eagles’ 25 and came away with six points. This time, the Cardinals took 10 plays to go 75 yards, ending in Murray’s six-yard TD toss to Carter. Linebacker Shaq Leonard was burned out there alone trying to bring down Carter, and the Arizona offense faced only one third down on the series.
The Eagles’ third defensive series. The Cardinals were moving the ball at ease against the Eagles in their first three drives. A Milton Williams’ nine-yard sack was a stopgap in the first drive. Brown’s 99-yard pick six on an Arizona miscommunication stopped the Cardinals on their second drive, and an Arizona false start made the Cardinals settle for their second field goal of the game. But with 1:50 left in the half, Arizona had outgained the Eagles 170-77, ran off 22 plays to zero for the Eagles in the second quarter, and had 13 first downs to the Eagles’ four for the game. On Arizona’s third drive alone, the Cardinals ran off more plays, 16, than the Eagles had in the game at that point (12). The Brown turnover played a big part, but the Eagles could not get off the field. The Cardinals’ third drive lasted 9 minutes, 54 seconds and went 59 yards, which Matt Prater topped off with a 34-yard field goal. On each of Arizona’s first three drives, the Cardinals got within the Eagles’ 25-yard line. Arizona’s inability to score touchdowns in the red zone may have had more to do with their own ineptitude than anything the Eagles were doing defensively.
The Eagles’ first defensive series. The Cardinals just rolled down the field on a 14-play, 64-yard drive that chewed up 7 minutes, 46 seconds. It was the second-longest scoring drive for Arizona, and though it resulted in a Prater 28-yard field goal, it gave a bad team an injection of early confidence. The Cardinals converted their first two third downs, they began the game with a 26-yard completion into Eagles’ territory. If not for Williams’ nine-yard sack, it would have been worse.
Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.