Eagles' playoff run reminds veterans of 2019, but with major twists beyond DeVonta Smith

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The situation is the same, but the players are different and so are the coaches.

Back in 2019, the Eagles' season was on life support. They were 5-7 after a demoralizing loss to the Dolphins. They needed to win all four of their remaining games just to get into the playoffs.

Washington was the second game of the four, just like it is this season.

And just like 2019, the Eagles were coming off a demoralizing loss to drop them to 5-7 after falling to the Giants 13-7 on Nov. 28.

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But the circumstances are much different.

Back then, the Eagles were a veteran-laden team, two years removed from their Super Bowl season. They were battle tested and knew how to respond. And they did, winning all four games, including a 37-27 thriller over Washington, to get into the postseason with a 9-7 record.

Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders (26) hands the ball to fans after scoring a touchdown against the Washington Redskins in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders (26) hands the ball to fans after scoring a touchdown against the Washington Redskins in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

So far, this year's team won the first game, 33-18 over the Jets. The Eagles will face the Washington Football Team on Tuesday after the game was postponed for two days because of Washington's COVID-19 outbreak.

Even with a 17th game this season, the Eagles have little room for error.

Yet linebacker Alex Singleton, who was a strictly a special teams player in 2019, said that hasn't been talked about this month. He said it became apparent going back to the 33-22 loss to the Raiders on Oct. 24, when the Eagles dropped to 2-5.

Since then, the Eagles have gone 4-2 to pull into a tie for the final wildcard spot with Washington, the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.

Washington currently holds the tiebreaker. But an Eagles win would give them sole possession of that final spot because they would have the tiebreaker over the other three by virtue of beating all three head-to-head.

"We kind of have felt that we needed to (win every game) already for the past month or so," Singleton said. "Obviously, the Giants loss ... felt like such a big loss because we felt like we were moving in the right direction."

It was much the same after the 37-31 loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 1, 2019. The Dolphins were 2-9 entering that game. But the Eagles came back to beat the Giants 23-17 in overtime the next week before facing Washington.

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Not many players left

There are only 12 players who played in that 2019 game against Washington on the current 53-man roster. Head coach Doug Pederson was fired after the 2020 season, and quarterback Carson Wentz was traded soon after that.

In December 2019, Wentz had a passer rating of 100.8 over the final four games. He completed 67.3% of his passes and had seven TDs without an interception.

This season is different.

Nick Sirianni is in his first season as a coach. And the Eagles are hoping to build around a core of young players from the last two draft classes. That includes quarterback Jalen Hurts; wide receiver DeVonta Smith; left guard Landon Dickerson; defensive tackle Milton Williams; and linebacker Davion Taylor, who's on injured reserve.

None of them has gone through a playoff chase in the final month of the season. And Hurts is dealing with an ankle injury that had left him questionable for the game against Washington after missing the game against the Jets.

But there are still veterans around like defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who have made it a point to instill the importance of these games into the young players.

"You've got to stress it to them, just kind of beat it into their brains, and make them believe in it," Cox said. "The veterans that have been around, the guys that have been in the league know what December means.

"You can’t fake the energy. You can’t fake the intensity. Just control everything, emotions and everything, and put it on the field."

The Eagles have done this with a running attack unlike anything the NFL has seen since the 1980s. The Eagles have rushed for at least 175 yards in six straight games, the first time that has happened since the Chicago Bears did it in 1985.

The Bears, behind Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, won the Super Bowl that year.

As a team, the Eagles haven't done it since 1949. The Eagles won the NFL championship that year, too.

That is not to say that the Eagles will win the Super Bowl this season. After all, offenses have evolved since the Bears won to feature the passing game. In 1984, Dan Marino of the Dolphins became the first quarterback to throw for at least 5,000 yards in a season.

No one else did it until 2008. Since then, it has happened 10 more times.

But in December and January, the run game becomes an integral part of a team's success, especially in cold-weather cities.

The Eagles, however, have even been doing the running game differently.

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert (88) breaks a New York Jets tackle for a touchdown in the first half at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in East Rutherford.
Philadelphia Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert (88) breaks a New York Jets tackle for a touchdown in the first half at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in East Rutherford.

No Walter Payton, but enough

They don't have a star running back like Payton, who rushed for 1,551 yards in 1985. The Eagles likely won't have anyone rush for 1,000 yards this season. Hurts leads the Eagles with 695 yards rushing, while Miles Sanders is second with 578.

When Hurts sat out the Eagles' win over the Jets on Dec. 5, Sanders rushed for 120 yards on a career-high 24 attempts. Sanders became the first rusher to go over 100 yards in a game this season.

Gardner Minshew, not nearly as accomplished as a runner as Hurts, was the quarterback that day. Still, the Eagles rushed for 185 yards.

"I think that shows the type of team we are," Hurts said. "We’re a good football team when we can attack people in different ways and be efficient in different ways. To see (Sanders) get over 100 ... and run the ball the way he did was really good."

That, in turn, has taken some of the pressure off Smith, who has been the Eagles' leading receiver in his rookie season.

Smith has 50 receptions for 701 yards, both team highs. But in the last two games, Smith has just four catches for 37 yards. He played just 62% of the snaps against the Jets, his lowest percentage of the season.

Smith was asked this past week about the so-called rookie wall.

"I feel like I’m still young. I can still run all day," said Smith, who turned 23 last month. "When the ball comes to me, I make my plays. As long as we’re winning, I’m happy. It doesn’t matter if we run the ball 100 times and don’t pass as all."

Perhaps there's an adjustment for Smith to more of a run-based offense.

After all, Smith won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama last season after having 1,856 receiving yards, including 215 yards in the first half of the national championship game. Smith hasn't been targeted nearly as often as a rookie, although he does lead the Eagles with 82 targets, well ahead of Dallas Goedert, who's next with 56.

Running for Miles

"No, not at all," Smith said about an adjustment. "There have been times in my life where I didn’t get that many passes. It is what it is. That’s the game. You have to do what’s working for you. Running the ball is working for us, so that’s what we’re going to do."

The Eagles didn't do it that way in 2019.

Sanders remembers this well. He was a rookie back then. Yet he had his best game as a pro against Washington on Dec. 15, 2019.

He ran for 122 yards, still his career high, on 19 carries. And he had a crucial 15-yard touchdown reception on a bullet pass from Wentz in the back of the end zone in the third quarter to give the Eagles a 17-14 lead.

Wentz attempted 43 passes that day. Hurts hasn't attempted more than 31 passes in a game since the loss to the Raiders.

"We had to win every game to get in, and that’s exactly what we did in 2019," Sanders said. "It was pretty much the same approach. I was younger. I didn’t really know how big the games were until we started winning.

"It’s just real exciting knowing that these fans are going to go crazy if we get this done. That’s all it really is."

Contact Martin Frank at mfrank@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Eagles' playoff run reminds veterans of 2019, but with some major twists

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