Gardner Minshew’s awful play has Eagles’ playoff path, Jalen Hurts’ shoulder in jeopardy | Opinion

PHILADELPHIA − The differences are subtle, and they’re also as plain as day as to why Jalen Hurts is a leading MVP candidate and Gardner Minshew is, well, not a starting quarterback on a Super Bowl-caliber team.

The Eagles are a Super Bowl-caliber team − with Hurts at quarterback. They’re not with Minshew, which he made painfully clear Sunday in the Eagles’ 20-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

So now the Eagles are backed into a corner, where they likely will have to take a risk with Hurts’ sprained shoulder by playing him in the season-finale against the Giants.

Oh sure, Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said after the game − as he has for the two games that Hurts has missed − that Hurts won’t play unless he’s healthy and how he heals faster than you, me and everybody else.

HURTS-ING OFFENSE:No Jalen Hurts, big problem as Eagles, Gardner Minshew fall to Saints.

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But it’s all semantics.

The Eagles need a win to lock up the NFC East title and the top seed in the NFC playoffs, with the first-round bye that goes with it.

After twice failing to clinch, the reverse is so starkly different that the Eagles’ franchise-tying best 13-win season will mean little if they end up with a road playoff game in Tampa against the Buccaneers.

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That’s because a loss to the Giants, coupled with a Cowboys’ win over the Washington Commanders, gives the Cowboys the NFC East title. That would relegate the Eagles to a wildcard spot as the No. 5 seed.

In simpler terms, as a No. 1 seed, the Eagles get a week off and two home games in order to reach the Super Bowl. As a wildcard, the Eagles don’t get a week off and they’d have to win three games − most likely all on the road − in order to reach the Super Bowl.

That’s how much the Eagles need Hurts to play against the Giants.

For the record, Sirianni said after the game that Hurts was “close” to playing against the Saints.

But the best remedy for Hurts is rest and rehab. So having five weeks from the time of his injury until his first playoff game, with the Eagles as the top seed, is a much better scenario than three weeks of rest and possibly playing at less than 100%.

And if Hurts is playing at less than 100% against the Giants and the Eagles lose, then chances are he’ll be less than 100% the following week against the Buccaneers with Tom Brady.

Surely you remember the last time the Eagles faced the Bucs on the road in the playoffs. It was a year ago, and it was a disaster.

“We gotta get a lot of things fixed,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “I gotta get a lot of things fixed. That’s what I’m focused on.”.

But really, there’s only one fix needed: Hurts at quarterback.

Look past Minshew’s respectable final stat line of 18-for-32 for 274 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

The Eagles’ first three plays of the game, coming after the Saints opened the game with a 9-minute touchdown drive, went sack, sack, short completion. The Eagles punted.

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You can point to a few dozen times throughout the season where Hurts would have avoided at least one of those sacks, run for a first down, and kept the offense on the field.

Same thing on the second series. Miles Sanders ran twice for 9 yards, setting up a third-and-1 from the Eagles’ 19. Incredibly, those were Sanders’ only carries for the entire first half.

Still, third-and-1 is a virtually automatic Hurts quarterback sneak and first down. Minshew, who doesn’t run like Hurts (heck, who does?), Tried a pass. He got sacked and the Eagles punted.

On and on it went. The Eagles didn’t get their first first down of the game until there were 12 seconds left in the first half, and they were trailing 13-0.

“We just couldn’t get rolling,” Minshew said. “It is one of those things that you try and get that first first-down and we kept shooting ourselves in the foot and getting in our own way.”.

Sure, the offensive line committed costly penalties, none more so than the holding call on Landon Dickerson on the Eagles’ opening drive of the second half. It was a bad call by the referee that negated Kenny Gainwell’s 28-yard touchdown run. The Eagles settled for a field goal.

But Minshew left the Eagles with no room for error. That became clear after Minshew’s best play of the game, a 78-yard touchdown strike to A.J. Brown with 45 seconds left in the third quarter that pulled the Eagles to within 13-10.

That was the first and only deep ball Minshew attempted. That’s another difference: Hurts is third in the NFL in yards per attempt, at 8.17, which means that he throws deep. That, in turn, opens up intermediate throws, not to mention running lanes for both Hurts and Sanders.

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Those chances were hard to come by. So early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles tried a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-1 from midfield. The Saints knew it was coming, just like the Eagles’ opponents know it’s coming with Hurts. But Hurts makes it anyway. Minshew was stopped cold.

“I thought that we got low, and I was waiting for the surge to happen, and it just didn’t,” Kelce said. “Kudos to them.”.

Then came the interception, when Minshew tried a wide receiver screen to Brown that Marshon Lattimore jumped, picked off and returned 11 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. Before the play, Brown noticed an adjustment that Lattimore made.

“I was trying to get Gardner’s attention to look up, but he never looked back at me,” Brown said. “(Lattimore) actually called (the play) right out, and he basically doubled me on the play.”.

It was an easy pick-6.

Again, there were several times this season when Hurts noticed a different coverage pre-snap than what the play called for. Hurts would check to a new play, like on the fourth-and-7 from the Giants’ 41 three weeks ago that ended up as a TD pass to DeVonta Smith.

“I think Jalen is obviously a special player,” Kelce said. “I thought Gardner played good enough to win if everybody executes and plays up to the level they had been playing at all year, myself included.”.

Hurts makes up for that. So expect him to play against the Giants with a sprained shoulder. After all, the Eagles’ entire season is on the line.

Follow Martin Frank at [email protected]. On Twitter @Mfranknfl.