This was the rematch of last season’s NFC championship game played on this field. It also was a meeting of teams expected to be NFC heavyweights this season that had struggled to start the year. The Vikings were the ones who got well by evening their record at 2-2-1.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for 301 yards and a touchdown on 30-for-37 passing. Wide receiver Adam Thielen had seven catches for 116 yards. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph contributed a touchdown on a first-half return of a fumble recovery.
And the Eagles couldn’t keep pace. The defending champs haven’t scored more than 23 points in a game this season. They have a record of 1-2 since Wentz made his return from last season’s knee injury, replacing reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles in the lineup.
“These little mistakes that sometimes can go overlooked are just killing us,” Wentz said. “We’re playing like we’re a young, rookie team. And we’re not. And so we’ve got to really be hard on ourselves and learn from these mistakes and turn it around fast.”
The Eagles are the eighth defending Super Bowl champion to start a season 2-3, according to the NFL. Only one of the previous seven, the 1996 Dallas Cowboys, went on to reach the playoffs.
“The way we’ve been playing and performing, it starts with me,” Eagles Coach Doug Pederson said. “I want to make sure that the guys understand that we can’t do these things. We can’t self-inflict and expect to win. Championship teams just don’t do that, and we’re doing that right now.”
The Eagles trailed 20-3 in the third quarter Sunday before managing to make things interesting. They got a third-quarter field goal. They got a fourth-quarter touchdown on Wentz’s pass to running back Wendell Smallwood, who lost the football in the end zone but had it long enough to be awarded the catch under the league’s new version of the catch rule.
After adding a two-point conversion, the Eagles couldn’t cash in following a Vikings turnover. And Minnesota sealed the outcome with a 52-yard field goal by kicker Dan Bailey with less than three minutes remaining. Wentz threw a touchdown pass to tight end Zach Ertz with just more than a minute left, but Thielen recovered the ensuing onside kick.
The Eagles are not hopelessly out of contention, not in a forgiving NFC East that seems to lack an imposing team this season. But more is expected of a team coming off a Super Bowl-winning season and getting back its franchise quarterback.
The Vikings led 17-3 at halftime, and the game could have been much more lopsided. The Eagles managed only 91 yards of total offense. Bailey, the veteran brought in to stabilize the Vikings’ kicking situation, missed first-half field goals from 28 and 45 yards.
But the Minnesota defense, so disappointing to this point in the season, made a big play to give the Vikings the lead. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly hit Wentz as the quarterback was about to deliver a throw. The football popped into the air and landed in the arms of Joseph. The defensive tackle, listed at 329 pounds, sprinted for the opposite end zone and covered the 64 yards at a respectable pace, although he later was spotted on the sideline with an oxygen mask over his mouth while wearing sunglasses.
The other significant play of the second quarter came when Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett was called for roughing the passer for a low hit on Cousins, negating a sack. Bennett was tumbling toward the turf before he hit Cousins, perhaps aided by a push by Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. Bennett appeared to first hit Cousins above the knee, then ended up wrestling Cousins to the ground by grabbing him below the knee. Referee Walt Coleman called the penalty.
The play was not an extension of the controversy over roughing-the-passer penalties this season, which was curbed when the NFL’s competition committee intervened. Those calls mostly were based on this season’s emphasis on penalizing a hit on which a defender lands on the quarterback with most or all of his body weight. This penalty came from the long-standing prohibition on hitting a quarterback below the knee — but in this case, there was some question whether Bennett was blocked into Cousins.
“Should not have been a foul for roughing the passer on Bennett. . . . Hit starts high, slides down and wrap-up takedown,” former NFL referee Terry McAulay, now a rules analyst for NBC, wrote on Twitter. “No forcible contact to the knee area or below.”
The penalty on Bennett led to a Cousins-to-Thielen touchdown. A promising Eagles drive to open the second half ended with tailback Jay Ajayi losing a fumble, and Thielen’s 68-yard catch and run set up a field goal by Bailey that stretched the Vikings’ lead to 20-3.
“We’re 2-3 because we’re playing bad,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. “It’s one and the same. Right now we are playing like we suck. That’s the reality. We can say we’re better than this all we want. But unless we play better, we’re not.”
There’s little time for the Eagles to lament this loss, with a road game against the New York Giants looming Thursday night.
“I’m confident that we’ll fix it,” Wentz said. “I’m confident that we’ll turn it around. But it’s frustrating right now.”
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