PHILADELPHIA – In hindsight, much of this season has felt like borrowed time for the Philadelphia Eagles.
A string of thrilling rallies and nail-biting victories had demonstrated resilience and confidence, yes, but it had also revealed the frailties that generate the need for rallies. The offense starts slow. The defense has holes, particularly in the defensive backfield. Deficits are built. Heroics are needed. Those comebacks built toughness, yes. The risk was that these things tend to even out and eventually the Eagles might face a team that they could not outduel, one that would not bend to the Eagles' considerable will.
On Sunday, they did, in the form of a familiar nemesis, the San Francisco 49ers, who dominated the Eagles, 42-19. The loss ended some incredible streaks for the Eagles -- they had won five straight games when trailing by at least 10 points and were 5-0 entering the game when trailing at halftime in 2023. But the Eagles defense, which had been suspect for parts of the season, and had been gashed last week by the Buffalo Bills, simply could not handle the 49ers' parade of name-brand weapons. Play after play went to George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey. Tackles were missed, defenders left behind to give chase.
After going three-and-out on their first two drives, the 49ers embarked on a stunning stretch: In six consecutive drives, they ran 47 plays, gained 450 yards for an average of 9.6 yards per play and scored 42 points on six straight touchdowns, a series of jet sweeps and motions causing miscommunication on the defense. Even a post-play scuffle that resulted in the ejection of Dre Greenlaw and the Eagles' iconic director of security Dom DiSandro, whose involvement angered the 49ers but elicited an appreciative roar from the home crowd as he left the sideline, could not restore the Eagles' energy.
"When you play defense, everyone has to see things the same way," said Eagles cornerback James Bradberry after the game. "They run a lot of jets and motions pre- and post-snap. That put us in a bind."
The Eagles gave up 456 yards of offense and allowed the 49ers to convert eight of 11 third-down attempts – two of the failures came on those first two drives – while going 4-for-4 in the red zone. When asked what had to be done to do better in the red zone, Bradberry had to pause for a few moments.
"Trying to remember all the ways they scored down there," he replied.
"They're more of a perimeter team," Bradberry said. "We've got to be more keyed on our guys and our assignments."
The Eagles spent much of the game in pursuit, chasing the 49ers' playmakers down the middle of the field and then, down near the goal line, around the edges. The Eagles are thin at linebacker -- free agent Shaq Leonard visited last week and is due to make a decision on his next team in the coming days -- and it has been a concern throughout the season. With the 49ers having so many weapons who can create mismatches, the Eagles were at a constant disadvantage.
Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said it was hard for him to say whether the 49ers had changed their approach after the two three-and-out drives to start the game – that was simply too small a sample size, Sirianni said, to know what the approach was going to be. But on their third drive, which coincided with the start of the second quarter, the 49ers started running the ball with McCaffrey, and that started to open things up for the 49ers. Complicating things was that the Eagles missed tackles and the 49ers were breaking them, an uncharacteristically sloppy effort from Philadelphia. That led to big chunk plays – the final touchdown, for instance, came on a simple screen pass to Samuel that he took, nearly untouched, for a 46-yard score.
"That's a tough team to tackle," Sirianni said.
The Niners won't be the last ones. The Eagles are in the middle of a punishing stretch of their schedule. They beat the Cowboys, Chiefs and Bills in back-to-back-to-back games, and against the Bills, the Eagles defense was on the field for 92 plays. By late in Sunday's game, the Eagles' legs looked to be gone, although Sirianni said everybody is tired at this time of year.
"Chalk it up to lack of execution on our part," Bradberry said. "It was hard to get them in third-and-long. We're professional athletes and we're expected to make those plays."
They will have to start making them again, and quickly. At 10-2 and with their stranglehold on the NFC's top seed now down to just one game over the 49ers, the Eagles play the Cowboys in Dallas next Sunday night. A victory by the Cowboys would give them the same record as the Eagles. After that, the Eagles go to Seattle.
Most daunting for the Eagles is what Sunday made clear. Despite their record, they are not the most dominant team in the NFC. That is the 49ers who, when healthy, have been, literally unbeatable. When Samuel and left tackle Trent Williams have played complete games, the 49ers are 9-0. It was health that undid the 49ers against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game last season. This time, in a rematch that was nearly as lopsided as that game, the Eagles saw the opponent they avoided on their way to the Super Bowl last year and may have to confront again this time.
"This is a tough team to play," Bradberry said. "Hopefully we see them again."
Be careful what you wish for.