TAMPA, Fla. — If the Philadelphia Eagles had a chance to watch their fellow NFC East postseason qualifier, they saw the warning.
It’s a warning the Eagles, truth be told, received in Week 13. They received it also in Weeks 14 and 15 and again in Weeks 17 and 18.
Because despite the Eagles’ early hold on the division, despite their 10-1 season start and despite even the Super Bowl they nearly won 11 months ago, the Eagles began to crumble as the playoffs neared.
And they need look no further than the Dallas Cowboys’ Sunday collapse to the Green Bay Packers to see what might happen if they complete the tumble in a Monday night contest at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A coaching controversy? Free agent Bill Belichick is already being linked to the Cowboys amid questions about Mike McCarthy’s fitness to break Dallas’ going-on-29-year NFC championship and Super Bowl drought.
A quarterback controversy? After his two interceptions included a pick 6, Dak Prescott told reporters that if McCarthy’s job is in question, the question should extend to his.
Pit that against recent conversation about Prescott, who was named second-team All-Pro this season (meaning he was voted the second-best quarterback in the league by a 50-member panel) and considered a legitimate candidate to become the new richest quarterback.
This postseason collapse will also prompt questions about Micah Parsons’ extension, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s best opportunity in the league and even the Cowboys' culture that might or might not best position what seems to be a near-perennially talented group of players who fall short even when relatively healthy.
Now, let’s return to the Eagles.
The Eagles’ collapse has already begun. It’s a steeper drop from the heights Philadelphia reached last season and the expectations against which it has since fallen short.
So when the Eagles and Buccaneers play in the final wild-card game at 8:15 p.m. ET Monday, the result won’t prompt a Philadelphia collapse. It will either confirm or dispute the unraveling seams of the defending NFC champions.
Let’s review the questions at stake.
What questions face a reeling Eagles team entering Bucs game?
Can head coach Nick Sirianni quiet doubts about his ability to succeed in the wake of losing both coordinators and reassure team owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman that he is the right man going forward? Of course, the spiral has not lasted interminably. But a franchise that fired Doug Pederson so soon after winning a Super Bowl can't be counted out on making a move with Sirianni because he qualified for one.
Especially, again, with six-time Super Bowl champion Belichick generating buzz in league circles about the Eagles’ interest in his services.
At quarterback, the Eagles are locked into Jalen Hurts after signing him to a record-breaking extension last offseason. Hurts is still a talented dual threat imposing fear with both his arm and his legs on a team that considers physicality its identity.
“He can extend plays,” Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dave Canales told reporters. “That makes it difficult. We’ve got to sometimes cover for six or seven seconds, [and] he’s strong, too.
“He’s not just fast and elusive. He’s strong. So we’re going to have to do a good job plastering and getting him down.”
Again, Hurts is considered a very good if not great quarterback in this league. But facing the Buccaneers with a dislocated finger and without top receiver A.J. Brown (knee), can he withstand a blitz-happy Tampa Bay defense a week after the Giants’ blitzes troubled Philadelphia?
Then there’s the offensive system in general. Ball security has marked one of the biggest downfalls of this season's Eagles team, with Philadelphia turning the ball over 28 times in 2023 (tied for seventh-worst) after 19 in 2022 (tied for fifth-best). Can an offense that has coughed up 12 balls in its past five games protect against a defense that swiped eight in that stretch?
Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. — who forced six fumbles, deflected 12 passes and intercepted three this season — will do his best to prolong the trend.
And then comes perhaps the most concerning part for the Eagles, the concern that even Sirianni admitted panic about when demoting defensive coordinator Sean Desai in favor of in-house colleague Matt Patricia just under a month ago.
The problem: The Eagles' defense didn’t meaningfully recover. Philly allowed 30.8 points in its final seven games after allowing 21.2 in its first 10. Patricia is ambitious in his coverage goals, arguably to the detriment of his players’ understanding at times.
“You’re trying to stress the opponent on the sideline during the game, especially if it's something they haven’t seen before where now they’re trying to work on it, figure out what to do in those situations,” Patricia told reporters. “I’ve got to make sure I do a good job to make sure they’re optimized at the best time we can do those.”
Super Bowl laurels won’t help Eagles outlast Bucs
When Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles was asked how the Eagles team that beat Tampa Bay in Week 3 compared to the team’s current version, he gave a perfectly fair answer. It’s also an answer that, if they believe it, suggests the Eagles will be in trouble.
“They’re talented. They’re still tough,” Bowles said. “Again, they went to the Super Bowl last year. Double-digit wins this year. They’re still a great team.
“They’ve got players all over the place.”
All of Bowles’ descriptors except the Super Bowl note (which more often prompts a hangover than a surge) also describe the Cowboys team that hosted a playoff game Sunday.
None of them kept the Cowboys from getting burned by first-year starter Jordan Love, who routinely found wide-open deep balls in a 48-point team performance. None of that kept Prescott, who led the league in touchdowns and ranked third in fewest interceptions, from tossing costly turnovers. None of them countered an upset.
The NFC East has famously traded hands every year since 2004. This season, the Cowboys snatched it from the Eagles, sending Philadelphia to a Tampa Bay matchup in which the Eagles are a suspect 3-point road favorite, per BetMGM. Monday might call into question whether the NFC East had any playoff-ready team.
Could Philadelphia rebound from its recent skid?
Baker Mayfield’s rib and ankle injuries will help Philly’s case, and Tampa Bay’s midseason inconsistency offers a sample for how to topple a team that hadn’t picked a quarterback three weeks before the season began — a team not expected to make noise.
But when considering these teams’ performance the past two months (and their vibes, for those who consider vibes), the arrows trend in opposite directions. Tampa Bay is overcoming its inconsistent stretches more reliably than Philadelphia. The Bucs believe they have established their identity since the teams’ Week 3 matchup; the Eagles, arguably, have lost theirs.
“We started fast, had that midseason lull,” Mayfield said. “Backs against the wall, we got back to the same form we were in in preseason — everybody counting us out and leaning on each other and counting on each other. That's where we've been so far at the end of the year.
“Right now is no time to change your mindset. We've been in this one-game-at-a-time mentality for a while now. Now, it's real. It's win or go home."