Having finished high school in suburban Philly, I have an affinity for the Eagles. I also have gained an appreciation for the hard luck that Philly has endured on the sports front. I lived there when Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, and Bobby Jones–with Marc Iavaroni–delivered the long-awaited NBA title in 1983. The days of “We Owe You One” were over.
In football, however, the Eagles have been a very hard-luck team.
In 1980-81, they made it to the Super Bowl, but the Raiders–led by Jim Plunkett and Lester Hayes–were just a notch too good.
In 2003-04, they were within an inch of denying the Pats a Super Bowl, but Donovan McNabb ran out of gas down the stretch.
Since then, the Eagles failed to make a serious run at the Super Bowl.
For most of the regular season, QB Carson Wentz carried the Eagles to their best season in history. When he tore his ACL, thrusting backup Nick Foles into the starting role, many experts wondered if the Eagles would be able to salvage their season.
The Eagles, despite some minor sputters, forged on.
In the playoffs, the Eagles notched an unimpressive 15-10 win against the Falcons. While that catapulted them into the NFC Championship game, it became debatable whether (a) they would be a match against a Minnesota Vikings team that was strong, or (b) whether they could mount a serious challenge against a team like the Patriots.
Against the Vikings, the Eagles had their coming out party: they destroyed the Vikings 38-7, setting up a Super Bowl date with the Patriots, who squeaked by the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-21.
This time, 40-year-old Tom Brady was supposed to come home with his 6th Super Bowl ring. He had the corps of receivers to be able to score at will; the Pats defense wasn’t great, but was underrated. The Eagles had little Super Bowl experience among their team. While most of the country was pulling for the Eagles, the Patriots were the rational, statistical favorite.
In many ways, this one reminded me of the Bills-Giants Super Bowl in 1991, or the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl of 2008, or the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl of 2011. The Giants have a storied history of sending hard-charging teams against heavy favorites, and coming back with the Lombardi trophy.
The Eagles had a chance. But in order to win, I figured:
(1) Foles would need to play mistake-free football, but would also need to produce. Unlike Trent Dilfer–who won a SB with the Ravens–Foles couldn’t expect the Eagles defense to score 20 points against New England. Foles needed to make big plays.
(2) LeGarrette Blount would need to produce on the run. He didn’t have to run for 150 yards, but he needed at least 80.
(3) If the Eagles get a lead, they need to stay aggressive. In the 4th quarter, you’re going to need to keep scoring. Brady is going to torch your defense for long yards. The Pats will find ways to score down the stretch. You will not win by “not losing”. You will only win by playing hard, aggressive football. If you’re up by 10, you still need at least two more scores.
(4) They need at least one big defensive play down the stretch. A stop on downs, an interception–preferably a “pick 6”–or a fumble recovery. The Falcons couldn’t do that last year; the Jags failed to do it on 4th down two weeks ago; The Eagles needed to get it done in the Super Bowl.
The Eagles got every one of those things.
Foles played like an All Pro. He threw for over 370 yards, with 3 TDs and only one interception (and that wasn’t even his fault).
Blount complemented Foles with 90 clock-eating yards on the ground. The Eagles dominated on time of possession.
The Eagles got the first lead. Whenever the Pats would answer, the Eagles also answered. The Eagles, unlike last year’s Falcons, never let up.
Their trick play on 4th down–for a touchdown at the end of the half–showed the grit of a team that came to win. Many teams would have kicked a field goal, but Head Coach Doug Pederson went for the jugular.
As the British Special Air Services says: “Who dares wins.”
The Eagles took a 10-point lead into the half, but there was plenty of time left.
As expected, the Patriots didn’t go down quietly. Brady found his storied tight end, Bob Gronkowski, for a touchdown, cutting the lead to 3 points.
But the Eagles answered: Foles would toss a touchdown pass to go back up by 10.
Then Brady threw another touchdown, cutting the lead to 3.
And when the Eagles answered with only a field goal, the Pats had their opening: Brady found Gronkowski, and put New England on top, 33-32.
And there was still plenty of time left.
At that point, the Eagles were in a very tough bind. They had played all-out, had done almost everything right, and yet they were down by 1 and their defense had showed no sign of being able to hold.
Brady torched the Eagles for an astonishing 505 yards, with three touchdown passes and no interceptions. His QB rating–115.4–was phenomenal. And he would have more chances to score. He had made only one mistake–dropping the pass from Amendola in the first half, but that was then.
He now had a lead and would get at least two more chances. A rational man would say the Pats were back in the saddle.
Would the inexperienced, underdog Eagles–led by a backup–be able to answer?
Foles didn’t blink. On a drive that featured a 4th-down conversion, Foles threw a touchdown–in the middle of the field–to take the lead back.
After a failed extra point, the Eagles were up by 5, 38-33. And Brady had two-and-a-half minutes left to get down the field and score a game-winning touchdown.
The Eagles had only stopped the Pats once all night–the defense held them on downs once in the first half–but had produced no turnovers.
The Eagles needed a stop; the Pats needed a touchdown.
On the second play, the Eagles did something that neither last year’s Falcons, nor the Jaguars of two weeks ago, could do: THEY SACKED BRADY, STRIPPED THE BALL, AND RECOVERED.
The Eagles would convert that into a field goal, giving them an 8-point lead. The Pats would still be able to tie, and send the game into overtime.
And, as the Falcons learned last year, we know what the Pats can do if they get the ball in overtime.
Brady, true to form, put himself in position for one last Hail Mary for the chance at Overtime.
It was a good throw, exactly the kind that produces bobbles and miracle touchdown catches.
This time, the Eagles got an extra hand on the ball, and Danny Amendola could not save the day.