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To win a Super Bowl, a team must have a perfect blend of top-end talent and coaching while catching lightning in a bottle with some fortunate play and overall health.
This combination of ingredients allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to produce a 13-3 record and ride a wave of success throughout the playoffs toward the organization’s first Super Bowl victory. After Sunday’s 23-21 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, it’s clear some of the ingredients are missing. The Eagles have now lost as many games through five weeks as they did all last year.
Philly fans better enjoy their recent championship, because the odds of a defending Super Bowl champion making a playoff appearance after a 2-3 start are not in the Eagles’ favor, according to NFL Research:
NFL Research @NFLResearch
The defending Super Bowl champion #Eagles are 2-3 this season
Only 7 previous defending Super Bowl champions have started a season 2-3…
…and only 1 of the previous 7 rebounded to make the postseason (1996 Cowboys)
How has Doug Pederson’s squad reached this point?
The same things the Eagles overcame last year now serve as detriments.
Quarterback Carson Wentz and left tackle Jason Peters suffered season-ending injuries a year ago. Even so, the team overcame the injuries with its depth.
Nick Foles couldn’t regain his MVP form during the team’s first two contests when Philadelphia finished 1-1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, though.
The team waited until Wentz was 100 percent healthy before allowing him to take over the offense again. He did so in Week 3 and played well. But his return didn’t provide the expected spark. The 2016 first-round pick played at an MVP level for 13 weeks before injuring his knee last season. He’s yet to become that same player.
This doesn’t mean he’s been poor, but things have changed.
The offensive play-calling may not be quite as aggressive. For example, head coach Doug Pederson didn’t call a quarterback sneak during a 3rd-and-short situation despite the fact that those were automatic last season, as the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Jeff McLane noted.
Furthermore, far more is being placed on the quarterback due to injuries at the skill positions.
Alshon Jeffery missed the first three contests after offseason shoulder surgery. He burst onto the scene with eight catches for 105 yards in his return against the Tennessee Titans. But the Vikings basically shut down the Eagles’ WR1 by allowing only two receptions for 39 yards.
The rest of the wide receivers managed six catches for 97 yards, including Shelton Gibson’s only reception of 48 yards.
Instead, Wentz leaned on his favorite target, Zach Ertz. The tight end caught 10 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. But the Eagles need more from those outside targets to open up the field and maximize the unit’s full potential.
Mike Wallace is dealing with an ankle injury, and the speedster is out indefinitely, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. If Gibson can’t become a consistent presence in the offense, the unit won’t have a true downfield threat. This will allow opposing defenses to compress coverage schemes and make life more difficult on everyone.
Philadelphia could overcome those issues with its talented tight ends and the game’s deepest running back stable. However, Darren Sproles is dealing with a hamstring injury and wasn’t active Sunday, while Corey Clement has a lingering quad problem.
Michael Perez/Associated Press
Jay Ajayi let the team down when he fumbled at Minnesota’s 6-yard line, and the Vikings scored a field goal on the subsequent drive to build a 20-3 third-quarter lead. According to the Delaware News Journal‘s Martin Frank, the veteran runner took the blame for the fumble and said the turnover “cost them the game.”
The offensive line hasn’t been the same reliable force, either.
The coaching staff decided to make a change at left guard by replacing Stefen Wisniewski with Isaac Seumalo. The team’s 2016 third-round pick struggled throughout the contest, especially when he faced Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph. The experiment might be done after one game.
All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson isn’t playing to his usual standard, and this became blatantly obvious when he overset against Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly and allowed a strip-sack where the ball fluttered in the air before being caught by Joseph, who rumbled 64 yards for a touchdown.
“If we don’t get [mistakes] fixed, we’re going to lose a lot of games,” Wentz said, per Frank.
The offense hasn’t been great by any measure, but it could be offset by strong defensive play behind an ultra-talented defensive front with linebackers and defensive backs flying to the football. At least, that’s the way the Birds played a year ago.
Jim Schwartz’s unit is the league’s top-rated run defense. So what? The NFL is a pass-first league, and the Eagles no longer display the ability to slow good passing offenses. Over the last two weeks, the Tennessee Titans’ Marcus Mariota and Vikings’ Kirk Cousins completed 60 of 80 passes attempts for 645 and three touchdowns.
Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs combined to make 17 receptions for 207 yards and a score Sunday.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press/Associated Press
Jalen Mills hasn’t showed he’s a starting-caliber defensive back. Sidney Jones couldn’t handle the Vikings targets. To make matters worse, the Eagles’ best cornerback, Ronald Darby, suffered a stinger during the contest, per NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Reuben Frank.
A fearsome front, albeit without Derek Barnett on Sunday, isn’t getting home on a consistent basis because the defensive backs are being consistently beaten. Opponents don’t even have to run against Philadelphia since they can exploit passing game mismatches.
“Losing sucks, especially for a team with the talent that we have,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said, per Martin Frank.
Playing in the NFL’s worst division could serve as the Eagles’ saving grace. The Washington Redskins lead the division with a 2-1 record. The Dallas Cowboys have had their issues this season. The New York Giants, whom Philadelphia plays next, is counted among the league’s worst teams with a 1-4 record.
The Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars follow after the Giants—which is as difficult of a two-game stretch as the Eagles will face all season.
The New England Patriots were the last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions in the 2004 season. The Eagles have yet to show anything near what’s necessary to end that drought.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.