Eagles’ loss to Saints could complicate the recovery plan for Jalen Hurts

All that stood between the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFC East title was a win Sunday in their home matchup against the below-.500 New Orleans Saints.

Beat New Orleans, and the Eagles would have clinched the NFC’s top seed. A bye to start the playoffs would have been theirs.

But an offense without injured Pro Bowl quarterback Jalen Hurts (shoulder) and right tackle Lane Johnson (abdominal tear) instead combusted spectacularly. A defense that lost 11-sack lineman Josh Sweat early in the first quarter to a scary neck injury allowed Saints quarterbacks to complete their first 15 passes before finding a second-half rhythm that was sounder but not sound enough to lift up their lagging offense.

The Saints triumphed, 20-10.

And now, the Eagles enter the final week of the regular season with questions.

Among them: Will they seize the NFC’s top spot in a race they still control? Will the stakes ratchet high enough to hurry back Hurts?

Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said Sunday that the MVP-candidate quarterback was “close” to playing against New Orleans. Weigh for yourself the veracity of that against quarterback Gardner Minshew’s confirmation that he had taken every first-team rep at practice leading up to starting the game.

Sirianni employed expected language about how Hurts’ “health is the No. 1 priority” and the team won’t put “him in a position that’s going to risk his health.”

“If he’s ready to go,” Sirianni said of Hurts, “he’ll play.”

Expect the suspense to continue.

Gardner Minshew and the Eagles were stopped short of clinching both the NFC East and the conference’s No. 1 seed on Sunday in a loss to the Saints. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Eagles can draw some consolation from their Week 18 opponent, the New York Giants, clinching a playoff berth Sunday — removing postseason implications for the Giants in the teams’ upcoming matchup. That could compel Philadelphia to rest Hurts one week longer, maintaining a recovery period that would span five weeks if the Eagles also clinch a bye.

Minshew completed 18-of-32 passes for 274 yards, a touchdown and an interception in his second start. But the stat line underscores how ineffective the Eagles offense was for most of their losses. Even Sirianni admitted that.

“We’re going to try to get better right here,” Sirianni said. “I don’t get too high when we play a really good game. I don’t get too low when we play a really bad game.

“We played a really bad game today, offensively.”

‘Adversity’s hitting us’

The Eagles’ “really bad” offensive performance was particularly abysmal in the first half.

A unit that ranks fourth on the ground inched forward just six yards in the first half. Minshew, who was productive outside of a few turnovers the previous week against the Dallas Cowboys, was sacked five times before the Eagles earned a first down.

Philadelphia opened the game with four straight three-and-outs. New Orleans quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Taysom Hill, meanwhile, completed their first 15 pass attempts collectively as the Saints mounted a 13-0 lead.

Momentum began to shift in the final minute of the second quarter, when Eagles cornerback Josiah Scott intercepted a Dalton pass intended for receiver Chris Olave. Philadelphia, still scoreless and first down-less, regained possession with 34 seconds to play.

Only with 12 seconds to go in the first half did Philadelphia finally move the chains, facing third-and-7. Minshew found receiver DeVonta Smith right after for a 25-yard completion. But the clock expired, the gains fading into only-relevant-on-paper memory. Coming out of halftime, fans wondered: Could the league’s best team stoke the embers of that spark?

The Eagles rediscovered their running game on an initially impressive nine-play, 53-yard drive. But even that drive ultimately stalled (thanks in part to a hotly debated holding call) and resulted in just a field goal. Two drives later, in the final minute of the third quarter, Minshew flung a pass downfield to Pro Bowl receiver AJ Brown, who caught it on the right sideline, his defender falling out of bounds. Brown cut back inside as he covered the remaining 46 yards to the end zone on a 78-yard play.

The Saints now led by just 3 points. The Eagles would never come closer.

Because despite a strong second half from the Philadelphia defense, which collected seven sacks, the offense failed to rally.

The game-sealing play arrived with 5:27 to go in the fourth quarter. Minshew attempted a quick, short pass to wide receiver AJ Brown. Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, in his first game back from an Oct. 9 lacerated kidney, instead read Minshew’s eyes, jumped the route, and completed an 11-yard pick-six.

“We ran the same play earlier against the same coverage,” Minshew said after the game. “They made a great adjustment to it, jumped the route. I should have seen that leverage when we made the motion. I assumed since it was the same coverage, he was going to play it the same way.

“He made a great adjustment and made the play.”

The Eagles’ dropped a second straight game in as many tries without Hurts. In games without Johnson anchoring the right side of the line, they fell to 12-22 — now dropping seven of the last eight contests he’s missed, per StatMuse.

Minshew acknowledged the “frustration” with the offense’s ineffectiveness, saying he felt comfortable operating it but wished the Eagles hadn’t been “shooting ourselves in the foot.”

“We have everything we’ve ever wanted still in front of us,” Minshew said. “It’s all right here. Going into a big game, we’re all excited to get out there. This team doesn’t flinch. We’ve gone through a lot.

“Adversity’s hitting us now, and that’s OK. We’re ready for it.”

What the Eagles weigh with Hurts vs. Minshew

BetMGM will likely position the Eagles as heavy favorites to win the division next week at home vs. the Giants. Minshew’s four turnovers in two games should concern the Eagles, but his 355-yard, two-touchdown performance vs. the Cowboys might give them enough confidence to determine that Hurts facing the Giants’ backups isn’t worth the risk.

The Eagles would win the division and the conference’s top spot with a Week 18 victory. But if Philadelphia loses, and Dallas beats the Washington Commanders next week, Dallas will steal the division. (The San Francisco 49ers are still in contention for the conference’s top spot as well.)

Johnson is expected to return for the postseason, delaying surgery to do so. The Eagles continue to frame Hurts’ timeline more loosely. They know that the quarterback who completed 67.3% of passes for 3,472 yards and 22 touchdowns to just five interceptions, when healthy, offers a drastic upgrade from Minshew.

The Eagles'  loss to the Saints on Sunday might alter the timeline for Jalen Hurts'  injury return.  (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The Eagles’ loss to the Saints on Sunday might alter the timeline for Jalen Hurts’ injury return. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Hurts is also a threat in the ground game, rushing for 747 yards and another 13 touchdowns this season. The absence of that dual-threat ability was glaring on Sunday, including in the fourth quarter when the Eagles attempted a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 at the 50-yard line. They failed to convert, instead turning the ball over on downs.

“Obviously it wasn’t Gardner’s best game and it wasn’t our best game as an offense,” Sirianni said. “It wasn’t even close, right?

“Jalen’s been playing obviously really good football the whole year, and he’s one of our better players. He is a leader of our football team. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens. It would obviously be good to have him back because of the type of person and the type of leader he is.”

Sirianni said it’s “not a bad thing” that the Eagles were “humbled,” the loss presenting an opportunity to learn.

“I’m not ever going to be someone who hits the panic button,” he said.

But players knew Sunday’s issues extended beyond just their missing starting quarterback. Improvements must come more broadly for the Eagles to return to their best-in-NFC-caliber play.

“I could give two f***s about clinching first place or seeding,” Eagles Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce said. “We’ve got a lot of things to get fixed. I’ve got to get a lot of things fixed.

“That’s what I’m focused on right now.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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