Without Nick Foles, without two other starters, with his offense still bogged by turnovers and defense still dogged by big plays, Eagles coach Chip Kelly found salvation in an obvious place.
He put the ball in the hands of his running backs and watched the complexion of the game abruptly change.
LeSean McCoy and sparsely used Chris Polk combined for seven carries Sunday on a third-quarter drive that picked up 70 yards -– all on the ground. Polk capped the drive by bowling through the Texans' defense for an eight-yard touchdown, the swing play in the Eagles’ 31-21 win at NRG Stadium.
Polk’s first rushing touchdown of the season put the Eagles up 24-14 and built just enough of a lead against the Texans, who caught a break when DeMeco Ryans fumbled deep in Houston territory after he had picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Texans (4-5) turned the fresh set of downs into a touchdown from Fitzpatrick to DeAndre Hopkins as the Texans trimmed their deficit to three.
But Kelly went back to the ground game after Jeremy Maclin picked up 21 yards on a screen. Polk picked up two first downs, a 3rd-and-1 inside the Houston 30-yard line and 4th-and-1 inside the 5 to set up Sanchez’s three-yard touchdown to Maclin as the Eagles built the lead back to 10 and held on to win.
The Eagles (6-2) bounced back from their last-second loss to the Cardinals last Sunday, withstanding the departures of their quarterback, defensive leader and veteran right guard Todd Herremans to edge out a win on their second straight road trip.
Foles left near the end of the first quarter with a shoulder injury (see story). Herremans, already playing through a torn biceps left in the third with an elbow injury and Ryans was carted off the field of the team that originally drafted him after injuring his ankle on the interception (see story).
The win put the Eagles back into first place in the NFC East ahead of the fading Cowboys (6-3), who lost their second straight game, a 28-17 defeat to the Cardinals.
The Eagles had moved the ball easily through the air again in the first half and were headed for more than 500 total yards, but led just 17-14 at the break because of three more turnovers -– an interception apiece from Foles and Mark Sanchez and fumble by Josh Huff for the second time in two weeks.
But the game changed when Texans kicker Randy Bullock hooked a 39-yard field goal attempt with 4:07 left in the third, giving the Eagles possession at their 30.
Andrew Gardner replaced Herremans and Kelly then turned to McCoy and Polk to get the offense going again. McCoy peeled off runs of 14 and 26 yards to the Houston 30. Polk ripped off a 22-yard run before scampering eight yards for the touchdown that boosted the lead to 10.
Before leaving with a shoulder injury Foles had a typical Foles game –- an impressive long touchdown pass neutralized by another interception. He hit Maclin for a 57-yard touchdown pass early, but also threw his 10th pick, which was returned for a 51-yard touchdown by A.J. Bouyie.
Foles completed 10 of 13 passes for 124 yards. He posted a 99.5 passer rating. Sanchez, playing his first game since the 2012 season finale, completed 15 of 22 throws for 202 yards. He compiled an 89.6 passer rating.
Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick played OK, which is what you’d expect of a veteran journeyman with an average arm. He tossed two touchdowns, but was also picked off twice. He threw for 203 yards on 13 of 27 passing and compiled an 82.8 passer rating.
With all due respect to Maclin, who had two touchdowns, the heroes were McCoy and Polk, who rescued a struggling, turnover-prone offense. McCoy rushed for 117 yards on 23 carries, his second-best rushing effort this season. Polk added 50 crucial yards on eight carries, including his eight-yard touchdown and a fourth-down conversion on the team’s last drive.
Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, a seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro, was held to two catches for 12 yards and was a non-factor against a weak Eagles secondary known for allowing big plays.
Give credit to Eagles cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. They held their own against a good Texans outside wideout tandem, coming up with several big third-down stops. The Texans completed just 5 of 13 third downs.
The Texans' front seven put plenty of pressure on Foles and Sanchez but came up short in their home stadium against the Eagles’ running. They let McCoy and Sproles bail out a struggling Eagles offense and couldn’t come up with big stops in the fourth.
Foles left near the end of the first quarter to have his shoulder examined and was later ruled out for the rest of the game. Herremans, playing with a torn biceps, came out in the third quarter with an elbow injury and was called questionable to return. He was replaced by Andrew Gardner. Ryans injured his ankle early in the fourth quarter after an interception and was carted off the field.
S Nate Allen, LB Marcus Smith, QB Matt Barkley, WR Brad Smith, G/C Julian Vandervelde, G/T Dennis Kelly, DE Taylor Hart
Did you know?
LeSean McCoy’s rushed for 117 yards and has 6,095 career yards, leapfrogging Brian Westbrook (5,995) into second place on the team’s career rushing list. McCoy is 443 yards behind franchise leader Wilbert Montgomery (6,538).
The Eagles (6-2) play their first home game in almost a month when they welcome the Carolina Panthers to the Linc next Monday. The Panthers (3-5-1) will have plenty of rest. They fell to the Saints, 28-10, on Thursday night, to remain winless in their last four games.