Vacant stares and a gloomy silence were everywhere inside the Eagles’ locker room late Sunday afternoon. Sitting on a stool in front of his dressing space, safety Tre Sullivan wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with Apocalypse, and it sure felt like it.
The Eagles had just let a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead slip away against a Carolina Panthers team that did nothing for three quarters, but came alive just in time to escape Lincoln Financial Field with a 21-17 win.
“We blew it,” said defensive end Chris Long. “The offense held up its end. We just blew it at the end.”
Carolina (4-2) scored three red-zone touchdowns in the final quarter with 226 yards of total offense in that time, with an old friend coming back to haunt the Eagles at the end.
“We have a team of fighters; never out of a fight,” said Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey, who accounted for 82 yards of offense (29 on the ground, 51 in the air). “I think that showed … the good teams win the close ones.”
Torrey Smith, who helped the Eagles win their first Super Bowl last year in his only season in Philly, caught a fourth-and-10 pass with just over two minutes to play and the Eagles trying to protect a 17-14 lead. Smith got open against cornerback Jalen Mills, made the catch then stiff-armed Mills out of the way on his way to a 35-yard completion.
“I just pressed up on him,” said Mills. “Feel like I kind of got a little shove, ended up slipping, and he caught the ball. That would’ve ended the game.”
Instead, it kept alive the game-winning drive that ended with a 1-yard throw to Greg Olsen with 1:22 to play.
“In my mind, I knew we had the two-minute warning coming so I didn’t have to try to run out of bounds,” said Smith, who finished with four receptions for 61 yards against his former team. “I knew that if I caught it, I could fight for extra yards because it wouldn’t take extra time off.”
The Panthers (4-2) began their comeback with a 14-yard touchdown run by Curtis Samuel with 10:48 to play. Graham Gano missed the PAT and the Eagles still led 17-6.
The Eagles offense, which had a mammoth 17-play, 94-yard drive that covered 9 minutes, 22 seconds in the third quarter and ended with Carson Wentz’s second touchdown throw of the game, this one to rookie tight end Dallas Goedert to take a 17-0 lead, began to fizzle. They would collect just two first downs in the fourth quarter.
Carolina narrowed the score to 17-14 with 4:13 to go on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to Devin Funchess then a two-point conversion pass to Jarius Wright to set up the late-game heroics.
“This is special because (the Eagles) are the defending champs,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “We talk about wanting to be the champs, then we have to beat those guys and (Sunday) we had that opportunity. That’s a very good football team we played against and they’re finding their way. We’re trying to find our way, but when you win this type of game coming back the way we did, a lot of credit goes to our guys.”
The Eagles (3-4) had a chance to pull out a win after getting the ball back once the Panthers took their first lead. A 48-yard pass interference penalty against Alshon Jeffery (seven catches, 88 yards, one touchdown) set them up at the Carolina 22 with 1:11 left. It appeared that Carolina’s Eric Reid had an interception on a first down throw.
The call on the field was overturned, however, and the Eagles were given new life.
After an eight-yard run by Wendell Smallwood (nine runs, 32 yards) on second down, Wentz threw incomplete to Jeffery in the end zone. On fourth down, Wentz was sacked and fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Kyle Love to seal the Panthers’ win.
“I’m very disappointed,” sad Wentz, who extended his team-record streak of touchdown passes in consecutive games to 20 and was 30-for-37 with 310 yards and two TDs for a passer rating of 119.6.
“We had chances to win there at the end offensively and had a chance to seal the deal on two drives before, (but) we just didn’t do it, so when you’re on the field at the end like that with a shot, the ball’s in your hand and you don’t win, it’s frustrating.”
The Eagles, now 3-4, will try to find their way now in a foreign land when they travel to London for their first-ever game overseas, matching up against the Jacksonville Jaguars next Sunday.
Something they will need to find an answer to is how to get off the field on fourth down. They lost a game in Tennessee three weeks ago when they allowed three fourth-down conversions on the Titans winning drive in overtime, including a fourth-and-15 conversion.
“These are games that galvanize football teams, and this is going to do that,” said Pederson. “This is going to bring us even closer together. Basically told them pressure’s off of us. Nobody on the outside world is giving us a chance to do much of anything. Pressure’s off, so we can go play, have fun, and just relax.”