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Analysis: Eagles’ defense can do nothing to stop a Cardinals comeback

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray scrambles for yardage near the end zone against a defensively clueless Eagles team Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. (Matt Slocum – The Associated Press)
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray scrambles for yardage near the end zone against a defensively clueless Eagles team Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. (Matt Slocum – The Associated Press)

PHILADELPHIA — Veteran Julio Jones, who has been around almost as long as red challenge flags, turned back the clock with two touchdowns Sunday.

For much of the game so did the Eagles, who like last season got the lead and made the Arizona Cardinals play catch-up. Then, in the time it takes to say Jets, Seattle and we’re not committed enough, the Eagles came tumbling back to earth in a 35-31 loss to the Cardinals at Lincoln Financial Field. The game ended when a Jalen Hurts Hail Mary pass was intercepted in the end zone.

Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni, who wanted to stick it to Jonathan Gannon, the defensive coordinator who ditched him to become head coach of the Cardinals, was left shaking his head as he and his players exited the field to a chorus of boos. The locker room was like a morgue.

“When we’ve got a chance to bury people, we’ve got to bury them,” Eagles veteran Brandon Graham said. “I know it’s going to happen. I know it’s going to start clicking. We’ve got to go finish the season off right. It’s going to be a week to week thing. We’ve got to put everything we’ve got into it.”

With the loss and the San Francisco 49ers’ victory over the Washington Commanders, the Eagles (11-5) are eliminated from a shot at the top seed and the bye in the NFC. Worse, if the Dallas Cowboys (11-5) defeat the Commanders next week they win the NFC East based on a better record against common opponents.

Just like that the Eagles are on the verge of opening the playoffs on the road. Barring major good fortune they could end up playing in Tampa or New Orleans.

“It is what it is,” cornerback James Bradberry said. “We put ourselves in this position. We’ve got to look forward, we can’t look backwards.”

Considering the ineptitude of the Cardinals (4-11), who have difficulty getting out of their own way and are vying for the top pick in the NFL draft, the decision had the odor of a soon-to-be swan song, as oppposed to Swan Lake.

Particularly alarming was the manner in which the Eagles blew several leads, including a 21-6 edge at the intermission, how they were stopped by their old coordinator on a Tush Push and how they had to endure booing for their poor tackling and even for being indecisive and taking a timeout before a third and nine at the 14-yard line of the Cardinals in the fourth quarter. They didn’t convert.

“It’s the NFL. You give them a little inch, and people start running miles,” Graham said. “We should have buried them that first drive coming out. Wedidn’t get it done. They scored again. Those are the moments on defense we’re supposed to live for.”

The Cardinals rushed for 221 yards, outgained the Eagles in total yardage (449-275), in plays (72-47) and first downs (32-17). The momentum turned when running back James Conner, who rushed for 128 yards and a TD, made a one-handed grab of a Kyler Murray throw with 2:01 left in the third quarter. Murray threw a two-point pass to knot the score at 21.

Gannon appeared to be a bit too aggressive as he tried an onside kick that the Eagles recovered with 5:26 left. Then again, the Cardinals hadn’t been able to stop the Eagles and the coach would later say he did it purposely to be sure his smooth operating offense would have time to tie the game, or go ahead.

“You don’t want to get bled out,” Gannon said. “That team’s too good.”

In the first half the Eagles played bend-but-don’t-break defense and finally got a big play, rookie Sydney Jones going 99 yards for a pick-six to produce a 14-3 lead in the second quarter.

What was troubling was the Eagles’ abject failure to get off the field against an inferior offense except in the red zone. The Cardinals receivers generally were open and veteran running back Conner was a load in the first half as he rushed for 72 yards on 14 carries, including an 11-yard run on second-and-11. The Eagles’ tackling was hit or miss.

In the two-minute offense late in the half the Eagles got tricky when Kenneth Gainwell completed a 17-yard pass to DeVonta Smith, and Hurts, scrambling out of the pocket, threw a 22-yard scoring pass to Jones. It was the second TD of the afternoon for the 34-year-old Jones, who maintained focus despite the ball getting tipped.

That gave the Eagles a 21-6 lead at the intermission. At that point the Eagles were dominating on the scoreboard but not any of the offensive categories. It was an ominous sign of a second-half to come.

“Offensively we didn’t play good enough,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “Defensively we didn’t play good enough. A really, really frustrating loss. I think that we’ve got a lot of things to clean up.”