LOS ANGELES — “Yeeeeaaahhhhhh!” Brent Celek screamed as he stood on the 20-yard-line at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday evening, his triumphant howl marking the end of the Philadelphia Eagles‘ nine-day West Coast odyssey. The 32-year-old tight end’s eyes were ablaze with emotion as he celebrated a come-from-behind, 43-35 victory over the Los Angeles Rams that clinched the NFC East and vaulted his team back to the top of the NFC playoff chase.
It was pure joy — except, of course, it wasn’t.
Philly’s 11th win in 13 games was its most impressive to date, but it came with a stomach-churning caveat: second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, whose prolific play in 2017 has pushed him into the MVP conversation, exited the game after suffering a third-quarter injury to his left knee that the Eagles fear is a torn ACL. And when Celek, nearly an hour after the game’s cheerful conclusion, walked up the tunnel leading out of the stadium and headed toward the team buses, his mood was far more muted, and he was mindful of the challenge he and his teammates are likely to confront in the weeks to come.
For as it turned out, the Eagles‘ long-awaited signature victory coincided with a torturous twist that will cause many people to write them off.
“Well, we got that epic win,” Celek said, shaking his head. “And our quarterback went down. That’s life. We’ve all got to step up. We lost (All-Pro left tackle) Jason Peters, and we kept winning. We lost (veteran running back) Darren Sproles and (young middle linebacker) Jordan Hicks, and we fought through it. And if we don’t have Carson, we’ve all got to be just as good as we were today — if not better — to pick up the slack. We’ve all got to elevate our play.”
It’s a compelling clarion call, but it appears to be a highly ambitious one, even in the wake of the Eagles‘ spirited resilience against their NFC West-leading foes. In a highly anticipated showdown between the emerging quarterbacks who went 1-2 in the 2016 NFL Draft, it was unsung veteran Nick Foles who threw the pivotal passes in crunch time. And Foles got a major assist from a fellow former Ram, veteran defensive end Chris Long, whose strip sack of Jared Goff with 8:13 remaining (recovered, naturally, by another ex-Rams player, safety Rodney McLeod) set up Jake Elliott‘s 33-yard field goal that put Philly ahead for good.
When defensive end Brandon Graham snatched Tavon Austin‘s last-gasp lateral and rambled 16 yards for a touchdown with no time remaining, it was time for the Eagles — and a sizable portion of the Coliseum crowd of 67,752 — to party like it was 2013. That was the year that Foles, during his first stint in Philly, threw 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions in leading the Eagles to their last division title and playoff appearance, under then-rookie coach Chip Kelly.
Now the catalyst behind this Philly team’s surprising rise to the top of the conference appears to have taken his final snap of 2017. And Celek, of all people, understands just how daunting Wentz’s absence may turn out to be.
“Not really,” he admitted. “I mean, I felt like we’d gotten better. But the biggest reason, by far? It’s Carson. He’s a monster. He’s doing things that are ridiculous. And when he’s on, we feel like our offense can’t be stopped.”
The Eagles had in fact been felled the previous Sunday night in Seattle, losing a 24-10 slugfest to the Seahawks that ended Philly’s nine-game winning streak. They spent the next week in Orange County quietly seething as they prepared for a Rams team that had already secured its first winning season since 2003.
They started ignominiously, with Wentz (23 for 41, 291 yards) throwing an interception to cornerback Kayvon Webster — who would later leave the game with a season-ending torn Achilles tendon — on the game’s third play from scrimmage. Three plays later, Rams running back Todd Gurley (13 carries, 96 yards; three receptions, 39 yards) scored the first of his two touchdowns, giving L.A. a 7-0 lead.
Then Wentz got hot, throwing scoring passes to tight ends Celek (five yards) and Trey Burton (20 yards, 11 yards) on three consecutive possessions to put the Eagles up 21-7. However, Goff (16 of 26, 199 yards) countered with touchdown throws to receivers Cooper Kupp (five catches, 118 yards) and Sammy Watkins to cut the lead to 24-21, and L.A. went ahead 28-24 after Blake Countess scooped up teammate Michael Thomas‘ blocked punt and ran 16 yards to the end zone with 10:07 left in the third quarter.
Had that been the Eagles‘ lowest moment, this would have been a sublime Sunday. Alas, with four minutes left in the third quarter, Philly’s fortunes got much, much, much worse.
On first-and-goal from the 2, Wentz took a shotgun snap, scrambled to his right and dove for the end zone, getting sandwiched between defensive end Morgan Fox and linebacker Mark Barron as he crossed the goal line, with his knee absorbing the bulk of the force. The touchdown was nullified by a holding penalty on right tackle Lane Johnson, and Wentz stayed in the game for a pair of handoffs before summoning what was likely one final burst of brilliance in a tremendous season.
On fourth-and-goal from the 2, Wentz took a shotgun snap, pumped and stood firm as outside linebacker Matt Longacre collapsed the pocket. At the last instant he zipped a pass that barely evaded the right hand of Eagles wideout Nelson Agholor and, just before hitting the ground, was expertly plucked out of the air by Philly receiver Alshon Jeffery just inches away from the fingertips of safety Lamarcus Joyner.
It was Wentz’s fourth touchdown pass of the game and 33rd of 2017, an Eagles single-season record. And then, suddenly, he was walking gingerly to the locker room with a towel over his head, his knee seemingly unstable, his hand covering his eyes as he strode through the end zone tunnel.
When Gurley bulled in from a yard out with 13:58 remaining in the game, with the extra point staking the Rams to a 35-31 lead, the Eagles could have wilted without their leader. Instead, they regrouped and rallied around Foles (6 of 10, 42 yards), who engineered drives that led to Elliott field goals on each of Philly’s next two possessions.
“We knew we had to make a play, no matter what, because we hadn’t been making a whole lot of plays on defense,” Long said. “Doug (Pederson, the Eagles‘ second-year head coach) does a good job of keeping everybody even-keeled, and our team handles these situations really well. A lot of things went wrong for us, but we were really resilient.”
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who continued an All-Pro-caliber season with another stellar effort Sunday, agreed: “We knew the defense had to go out and win the game, and that it was our time.”
Pederson, too, did his share of tone-setting: With six minutes remaining, Elliott booted a 54-yard field goal to give the Eagles an apparent 37-35 lead, but Aaron Donald was whistled for a launching penalty, a 15-yard personal foul. Pederson took the penalty — and took points off the board. Though the ultimate outcome was the same, with Elliott converting a 33-yard field goal with 3:45 remaining, Pederson’s bold call bled the clock and sent a message to his players.
“I wanted the touchdown,” Pederson said as he left the stadium. “I wanted to stay aggressive, and show that aggressiveness to our team — to show them that we were still going after it. And Nick was great. To get thrown in like that and battle and do what he did, it’s unbelievable.”
After the Eagles forced a Rams three-and-out, Pederson remained aggressive, calling a pass on third-and-8 from his own 23, and watching Foles zip a nine-yard completion to Agholor that all but clinched the game.
That left the Rams (9-4) a game ahead of the Seahawks (8-5) in the NFC West, and in a precarious position: L.A. lost its first meeting with Seattle, and the rematch is this Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
“It’s a must-win,” Goff declared Sunday night. “It’s a big one.”
Goff wasn’t in the best mood, but he also knew he had emerged from Sunday’s showdown in better shape than his friend and rival. Wentz, who didn’t speak to reporters, emerged from the locker room wearing an NFC East champions cap, a black long-sleeved shirt, black shorts and a black brace on his left knee on this Black Sunday.
After loading up a plate of Mexican food, Wentz boarded the back of a cart that drove him up the tunnel and beyond a chain-link fence that shielded the Eagles‘ buses from the masses. Facing backward, Wentz checked his phone as he exited the stadium while being trailed by a slew of reporters and camera crews, doing his best to tune out the drama. After entering a secure area, he boarded Bus #1 and began a long trip back to Philly, where on Monday he was scheduled for an MRI that should reveal the extent of his injury.
Ten minutes later, Foles came out of the visitors’ locker room smiling. He exchanged warm greetings with some of his former Rams teammates, and other staff members, as he made his way out of the stadium.
“I’m ready to roll,” he said.
He’d better be. Meanwhile, Celek and the rest of the Eagles insist they’re not ready to roll over, even after a gut punch that took the air out of their division-clinching celebration.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.