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It's getting late early: How small are Eagles' playoff chances after winless start?

Martin Frank
Delaware News Journal

The Eagles chances of making the playoffs for a fourth straight season do not seem very promising.

Neither is the Eagles' upcoming schedule.

Since 1980, only six teams out of 183 have made the playoffs after starting out 0-3. The Eagles are 0-2-1 after their 23-23 tie against the Bengals last weekend.

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Only one other team has started 0-2-1 since 1980, and that happened last season with the Arizona Cardinals. They didn't make the playoffs.

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That makes six out of 184 teams, or 3.3%, that made the playoffs after getting off to a winless start after three games.

Quarterback Carson Wentz runs through warm-up exercises as the Eagles practice at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia in 2018.

The Eagles have been winless three other times after three games (all 0-3) since 1980 – in 1986, 1998 and 1999. They finished 5-10-1 in 1986, Buddy Ryan's first year as coach; 3-13 in 1998, Ray Rhodes' last season as coach; and 5-11 in 1999, Andy Reid's first season.

No wonder Eagles tight end Zach Ertz said, "We’re in dire need of winning a football game."

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Yet the Eagles' next three games are at the San Francisco 49ers (2-1) on Sunday night, followed by a road game at the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) and a home game against the Baltimore Ravens (2-1).

The Steelers will be well-rested after their game this Sunday against the Tennessee Titans was postponed after a COVID-19 outbreak among Titans' players and staff.

The NFL has added an extra playoff team in each conference, and the Eagles, incredibly, are only one-half game behind Washington and Dallas (both 1-2) for first place in the division. 

"We’re in a hole right now and we have to dig ourselves out," right tackle Lane Johnson said. "But in the previous two seasons, we’ve been in similar situations. It wasn’t looking too good for us and we found a way to bounce back."

'It was pretty bad'

Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave knows all about this. He was on the Steelers team that started 0-3 last season. And things looked even bleaker for the Steelers than they do for the Eagles right now.

The Steelers were down to their third-string quarterback after Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. The Steelers then won 8 of their next 10, using a fourth quarterback at times, before losing their last three games.

The Steelers finished 8-8 and were eliminated from playoff contention in the last game of the season. If the current playoff format had been in place last season, the Steelers would have gotten in.

"In Pittsburgh, we had a lot of veterans, too, that just kept going, kept talking to us," Hargrave said. "Losing is not really acceptable (with the Eagles), so it’s just in our nature to keep going and keep trying to turn this thing around.

"We just leaned on each other (in Pittsburgh). It was pretty bad (last season). But I see the same thing in the NFL. It’s a roller coaster, and so, we’re about to get on the right track."

Like the Steelers, the Eagles will likely have to do it while short-handed. 

Eagles' Greg Ward is brought down after making a reception last year at Lincoln Financial Field.

On Thursday, four of the Eagles' top five wide receivers missed practice in DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and John Hightower. That doesn't include rookie first-round pick Jalen Reagor, who's on injured reserve.

That left Greg Ward as the only healthy wide receiver practicing who's currently on the 53-man roster. Rookie Quez Watkins practiced Thursday, but he's still on IR, although it's likely he'll be activated before the game against the 49ers. Watkins has never played in an NFL game.

Deja vu, but earlier

The Eagles have been here before, but much later in the season. 

The Eagles were 5-7 last Dec. 1 after a demoralizing loss to the Miami Dolphins. They won four straight games and made the playoffs behind Wentz and an injury-depleted wide receiver corps.

In 2018, the Eagles were 4-6, and won five of their last six to make the playoffs.

Last season, the Eagles relied on Ward down the stretch. He began the season on the practice squad for the third straight season. He was later added to the 53-man roster. Over the last four games, all must-wins, Ward ended up leading the Eagles' wide receivers in receptions (21) and yards (209).

"The thing that we look at now moving forward, we're going to have to find creative and unique ways to use all our players on offense," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "The tight ends, the runners, obviously, with Carson.

"And we've done this before. We did it at the end of the season last year. We won the four straight to get us into the postseason, and it appears we're going to have to do that again."

They're just going to have to start doing it sooner.

3 WRs out, 1 doubtful for 49ers

The Eagles ruled out wide receivers DeSean Jackson (hamstring) and Alshon Jeffery (foot), in addition to Jalen Reagor (thumb), who's currently on injured reserve. In addition, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (calf) is listed as doubtful.

The Eagles will also be without cornerback Avonte Maddox (ankle) and his backup Trevor Williams (ribs).

Left tackle Jason Peters is listed as questionable with a foot injury. He was a limited participant after missing practice Wednesday and Thursday with an illness. If Peters can't play, then Jordan Mailata would likely start at left tackle. Mailata has never started an NFL game before, and has played just 20 snaps.

Overcoming long odds

The following six teams made the playoffs after starting out 0-3 (the Chargers were the only team to win a playoff game): 

2018, Houston Texans, 11-5, won division

1998, Buffalo Bills, 10-6, wildcard

1995, Detroit Lions, 10-6, wildcard

1992, San Diego Chargers, 11-5, wildcard

*1982, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 5-4, wildcard

1981, New York Jets, 10-5-1, wildcard

*strike-shortened season

Contact Martin Frank at mfrank@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.