PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Earning a bye week gave the Philadelphia Eagles an opportunity to work even harder.
No mini-vacations. No golfing. No beach trips.
Instead, the Eagles (13-3) kicked off preparation for next Saturday’s divisional playoff game by holding their toughest practice since training camp.
Players put their pads on Wednesday and got after it on the indoor field as starters faced off like it was a hot day in August instead of a frigid January afternoon.
“The guys in this room aren’t afraid to work, grinding, enjoying the process, enjoying the small things a lot of people don’t like to do this time of year,” Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We understand the significance of the situation we’re in and we want to take advantage of the time we have. Guys didn’t want to be off for the whole week. We want to get better.”
The Eagles are the NFC’s No. 1 seed but no longer are Super Bowl favorites after losing MVP candidate Carson Wentz in Week 14. Oddsmakers have three NFC teams listed ahead of Philadelphia.
Backup quarterback Nick Foles played well the first five quarters he filled in for Wentz, then struggled in the last five. He was 20 of 48 for 279 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions versus 23 of 49 for 202 yards with one TD and two picks. Foles and the rest of the starters sat out the final three quarters of a 6-0 loss to Dallas that prevented Philadelphia from setting a franchise record for regular-season wins.
The defense looked sharp in the last two games, but had a tough three-game stretch on the road to start December.
So, members of the team’s players’ council told coach Doug Pederson they wanted to practice in pads instead of going through walkthroughs during their bye.
“It’s not a punishment thing; it’s not coming directly from me,” Pederson said. “It’s what the players want. I listen to my guys. I think they understand that there is a sense of physicality that we have to get back to. So you get back into pads and it sort of refocuses the guys a little bit.”
Of course, there was no tackling at practice, but the intensity level was much higher.
“We were moving around, moving fast,” Foles said. “Pads are different, and getting to move in pads, getting to throw in pads is a good thing.”
Even the receivers welcomed the change of pace.
“All gas and no brakes now,” Alshon Jeffery said. “You have to keep working hard and we wanted to go out and compete against one another.”
The Eagles are in the postseason for the first time since a 26-24 home loss to New Orleans on Jan. 4, 2014. Foles rallied Philadelphia from a 20-7 deficit late in the third quarter and tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz for a 24-23 lead with 4:54 remaining, only to watch special teams allow a long kickoff return that helped set up a winning field goal.
The NFC East champions will host the Saints (11-5), Panthers (11-5) or Falcons (10-6) on Jan. 13. They’ll be seeking their first playoff win since advancing to the 2009 NFC championship game as the sixth seed.
Expectations outside the locker room are low. Many folks are predicting Philadelphia is the most likely team with a bye to be one and done. Panic-stricken fans even called for Pederson to bench Foles for second-year pro Nate Sudfeld, who threw his first career pass against the Cowboys. Sudfeld was 19 of 23 for 134 yards. Pederson actually was asked by reporters to confirm that Foles was indeed the starter.
Obviously, he’s not benching Foles for a guy who just made his NFL debut.
“He’s the guy now,” Pederson said. “But, he doesn’t have to feel the weight of the entire team. This is a team sport. We have to play great defense, obviously, and special teams has to own up to their jobs. Then offensively, we just have to be better all around. I want Nick to embrace it; he has embraced it. At the same time, the guys around him also need to own their jobs and their responsibilities going forward.”