- The front-running Eagles headed west for their toughest two-game stretch of the season and emerged in prime position for a Super Bowl run—except for the loss of their franchise QB. The MMQB followed them for an eventful week in the life of an NFL team
LOS ANGELES — A few minutes before 4 p.m. local time on Sunday, the blue medical tent went up on the Eagles’ sideline at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This was the clearest sign that something was not right with Carson Wentz.
A team security officer blocked the entrance to the tent as medical staff examined Wentz inside. Just a few yards behind, in the first few rows of the stands, fans in Philadelphia gear—the same fans whose presence made it impossible to tell which was the home team and which was the away team—looked on with pained expressions. There was one young man in the first row wearing a Wentz jersey, mouthing something that could be assumed to be a desperate prayer or call of encouragement, while holding up his cell phone as if he were waiting, and hoping, to take a picture of his team’s quarterback emerging from the tent, ready to go back in.
Wentz did emerge a few minutes later. Except instead of picking up his helmet, he started the long walk back to the locker room, baseball cap on, towel draped over his head. The Eagles were one quarter away from beating the resurgent Rams and winning the NFC East, but suddenly, with the news that Wentz had been ruled out of the game—and possibly the rest of the season—with a knee injury, the city of Philadelphia had been sent into a panic.
A week earlier in Seattle, on the first stop of the Eagles’ eight-day road trip, they hit their biggest bump of the season, a 14-point loss—only their second of the year—in a notoriously difficult stadium. The MMQB spent the week following the Eagles, chronicling a stretch of the season that would serve to measure just how good this young team really is. The Eagles emerged 11-2, sitting alone atop the NFC—but, as the news broke on Monday that Wentz had indeed torn his ACL and was gone for the year, they now face their greatest challenge of all. It’s impossible to predict what’s next, but a look inside their locker room, during an unusual and ultimately bittersweet week, gives some clues as to how they handle challenges—small, big or unexpected. Eight days with the Eagles ...
Sunday, Dec. 3
CenturyLink Field, Seattle
The loudest noise in the visitors’ locker room is the running water splashing against the floor of the showers. Walking into this stadium hours earlier, the Eagles hadn’t lost a game in 77 days. But the nine-game win streak, which had the city of Philadelphia letting down the guard built up over 57 championship-less Eagles seasons, ended against a familiar slayer in the NFC.
“We haven’t lost a game in so long,” says defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, “you forget what it feels like to lose. That kind of puts knots in your stomach.”
So, too, did the antics of Russell Wilson, dubbed by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins as the “human joystick.” He tore the game open on a third-and-10 play midway through the third quarter, when Eagles defenders say he changed the snap count to get them to tip their defensive call, a cover-zero blitz that sells out to get to the quarterback and keeps no defenders deep. He shifted the protection, kept the tight end in to block and threw a 47-yard pass to Doug Baldwin to the Philly 1, leading to the touchdown that would put the Seahawks up 17–3. Perhaps the most crucial play, though, came on a third-and-8 in the fourth quarter. Wilson escaped through a crease in the pocket and, five yards past the line of scrimmage, pitched the ball laterally—or was it forward?—to his running back as two defenders were closing in. The Seahawks went on to score on that drive, all but securing their 24-10 win.
“He caught me off guard,” defensive end Chris Long says at his locker afterward, still shaken by his empty lunge at Wilson right as he took off running.
Post-game, a common adversary emerges: a bad week of practice, in which the Eagles say they made mistakes like turnovers and penalties that are starting to show up on Sundays. Wentz, whose heroics carried the team for much of the season, is particularly hard on himself. He overthrew Nelson Agholor, underthrew him another time and fumbled the ball away on the goal line while diving in for a score. Knowing his penchant for extending plays with his legs, the Seahawks are not shy about hitting him. “He likes to find the extra yards,” says Sheldon Richardson, who forced the fumble. A few times through the night, Wentz appears to wince and one time signals back to the sidelines with a thumbs-up that he’s OK to keep going.
During their late-night flight to Southern California, head coach Doug Pederson will check on his quarterback on account of all the hits—12 in total—he took in the game. The players file out to the team buses, stopping to fill up to-go containers with salmon, short ribs, ratatouille and potatoes au gratin, to go along with their thin sliver of humble pie.
“We’ve been playing great up until this point,” center Jason Kelce cautions, “but this thing can change very easily.”
Costa Mesa, Calif.
In the middle of the night, the Eagles arrive at their home for the next six days, a hotel in Orange County across the street from a luxury shopping mall. In the NFL, familiarity is held in high regard—this is the same place where the Eagles stayed for their Oct. 1 game against the Chargers. “I do well in hotels,” Long says later, “so I’m not stressed.” The second and third floors have been converted into meeting rooms, training rooms and coaches’ offices. While the players and coaches head to their rooms, the equipment staff has gone straight to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where the team will practice all week, to begin their load-in. The Angels crew is amused to see the heavy parkas the Philly staffers had brought down from Seattle—there would be no use for those in the 70-degree Southern California weather.
Costa Mesa, Calif.
Pederson stands bleary-eyed behind a hotel podium adorned with a makeshift Eagles sign printed on computer paper. As is typical for coaches in the NFL, he clearly hasn’t gotten much sleep since the game. A Sunday night game, a body clock still set to East Coast time and a loss make for a tough combination.
Pederson answers seven straight questions about the non-challenge of Wilson’s lateral; slightly miffed, he defends his decision. With the same resolve, he declares this will be a “normal” week—as normal as possible some 2,700 miles from the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia. He does, however, say he’ll change his messaging to the team in light of the self-inflicted mistakes he believes began in practice and lurked under the surface during the win streak.
“Winning can kind of cover up or mask some things, some deficiencies, a little chink in your armor, if there is any,” Pederson says. “There's no substitute for the preparation and the hard work. ... The guys have to know that, and it's my job to make sure that they understand that.”
While Pederson addresses the media, safety Malcolm Jenkins—who will be announced as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee later in the week—is sitting in the hotel lobby, meeting with his San Diego-based philanthropic strategist about the next steps for his social justice work through the Players Coalition. Defensive end Brandon Graham, also taking advantage of the players’ off day, takes his wife and 22-month old daughter, Emerson, to the Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles. “Best gummy bears I had in a minute,” he reports back. Sidney Jones, the second-round pick who is out with an Achilles tear, drives 40 miles north to his hometown, West Covina, to pick up his younger brother from school. In the late afternoon a group of seven players heads to a housing development in Santa Ana to install siding on two homes being built through Habitat for Humanity for Orange County. “It was fun to get some handiwork in,” receiver Torrey Smith says, “and have a good time together.”
Equinox, Irvine, Calif.
Ninety-minute team lift, on an outdoor roof deck. “Everybody seems like they were in a good mood,” Graham says. “They understand what [the Seattle loss] was, and we move forward.” At the same time, the players are turning their clocks backward. The Eagles stayed on Eastern time for the Seattle game but switch to Pacific time for the week in California. It’s an adjustment: Graham sheepishly admits he hit the hay at 8:30 p.m. PT on Monday night.
Ronald McDonald House, Orange, Calif.
After a 30-minute walkthrough in street clothes centered on game corrections—offense at Angel Stadium, defense at the hotel—the team’s 14 rookies bus to Orange County’s Ronald McDonald House. Fred Hill, the former Eagles tight end, helped found the original Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia in 1974 after his 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. The rookies spend about an hour with Hill and the people the house serves, families of seriously ill children, playing cornhole and decorating picture frames. “As soon as we got off the bus, they were so cheerful and almost, like, starstruck,” says receiver Mack Hollins. “We are all rookies, we are not big-time guys, but they didn’t care.” During a week when the Eagles would go to great lengths to eliminate their own distractions, for the Ronald McDonald House families, the Eagles serve as a welcome one.
Costa Mesa, Calif.
Rams week officially begins. The Eagles quarterbacks—Wentz, backup Nick Foles and third-stringer Nate Sudfeld—start with a 45-minute quarterback blitz meeting in the hotel’s Douglas board room. The Eagles QBs are guided by three former college or NFL quarterbacks: Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. On game day, Pederson and Reich on the sideline and DeFilippo up in the coaches’ box are keeping track of the hits Wentz is taking. After the Seahawks game, the ongoing conversation about him protecting himself would continue.
“That’s the fine line, that you’ve got to be careful of [not] taking the aggression away from your quarterback … because I don’t ever want to do that,” Pederson says. “But at the same time, we’ve got to continue to educate and talk to him about sliding and protecting himself, getting down, all of that; the longevity of the season and his well-being. It’s a fine line, but we'll just continue to talk to him about those issues.”
Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.
Hope you guys have a great week at the Big A.
The Los Angeles Angels
Waiting in each player’s locker stall as they arrive for practice is a note and gift from their hosts: a bobblehead of the Eagles’ most famous season-ticket holder, Angels star outfielder Mike Trout. “Gotta put that up in the house somewhere,” says right tackle Lane Johnson.
A baseball stadium might seem like an unusual place for the Eagles to practice, but in fact, the Los Angeles Rams (version 1.0) played here from 1980 to 1994. The goalposts the Angels put up for the Eagles are the same ones used by the Rams back then and stored for decades in a hallway in the bowels of the stadium. The venue also regularly hosts high school football playoffs, though this year’s games were moved because of ongoing renovations to the stadium’s scoreboards and sound system.
The conversion process is relatively simple: The pitcher’s mound is removed and a laser is used to lower the infield dirt, over which a thick layer of sod is laid down. Early in the week Eagles players commented on the slick grass and having to wear their longer, screw-in cleats. The Angels adjusted—they stopped watering the grass so that the players would have better footing. The Eagles had flown their groundskeeper out the previous week, and the field was lined and painted before the Eagles kicked off in Seattle.
When the Eagles’ 2017 schedule was set to include three West Coast road games—against the Rams, Chargers and Seahawks—they made a request to the league that their Los Angeles games be scheduled back-to-back, to save one round-trip. They got the next best thing, back-to-back games in Seattle and Los Angeles. But where would they practice? With the Chargers moving to L.A., the StubHub Center in Carson was no longer an option. The Rams hold training camp at UC-Irvine, but when they break camp they load out all the football equipment. Plus, there’s no privacy on the open practice fields, something that didn’t pass muster for the Eagles.
Kathy Mair, an Eagles football operations employee who used to work for the Angels, suggested reaching out to her old team. The stadium’s calendar in December was wide open, practices would be closed and they could offer the infrastructure of a professional sports team: weight room, kitchen facilities and even clubhouse attendants. Since NFL rosters are more than double the size of MLB rosters, the Eagles set up in both the home and visitors’ clubhouses. The honor of using Mike Trout’s corner locker? That went to linebacker Nigel Bradham.
The only question for the Angels was, how much to charge? What’s the going rate for an NFL team to practice in an MLB stadium for a week? Sam Maida, the Angels’ director of baseball operations, settled on a flat fee of $50,000 for the week—a bargain considering the Angels draw that same amount for a group renting the parking lot for a one-day event. Maida didn’t want to overcharge another pro sports franchise, and he also hopes it opens the door to other NFL teams looking for a place to practice on the West Coast. “Mostly it just seemed like a fun thing to do,” Maida says. “Back when we originally scheduled this, before the season even started, we didn’t know the Eagles were going to be 10-2 and one of the best teams in football.”
Spotted on the practice field: Darren Sproles. The 34-year-old Eagles running back has been on injured reserve since tearing his ACL and breaking his forearm on the same play in Week 3 against the Giants. He’s been rehabbing in San Diego, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. But with the Eagles so nearby, he’s spending the week on the practice field and in meeting rooms. Wearing a black sleeve on his injured left leg, Sproles is working with the running backs during position drills, holding up a tackling bag to help running backs coach Duce Staley run a drill.
“His presence brings the energy up for everybody,” says fellow running back LeGarrette Blount. “It’s something you can’t replace. As far as playing, he left a huge void. We don’t have anybody with his skill set.”
Days later, at his Monday press conference after the Rams game, Pederson will note the loss of vital players like Sproles, and left tackle Jason Peters, and linebacker Jordan Hicks, and special-teams ace Chris Maragos–and send a message by pointing out the Eagles’ ability to keep winning despite those circumstances.
Chris Long, perched on the edge of the leather wraparound couch in the Angels home clubhouse, wants to clarify the identity of the frothy, amber-colored beverage he just poured out of a tap and is sipping from a plastic cup.
“It’s not beer, it’s Kombucha,” Long says. “Nobody knows what it does, but everybody is drinking it.”
Costa Mesa, Calif.
Cell phones in the Eagles team hotel buzz with an emergency alert: Strong winds over night creating extreme fire danger. Stay alert. Listen to authorities. About 12 million people across seven counties in Southern California receive the same alert, according to the Associated Press, the widest broadest ever issued by the state’s Office of Emergency Services. As devastating fires sweep through parts of the region, the National Weather Service forecast an extreme Santa Ana event, with the dry, downslope flame-spreading winds expected to gust up to 80 miles an hour over the next 18 to 24 hours. The Rams, whose Thousand Oaks headquarters are close to the fires, turn their Wednesday practice into a walkthrough at an indoor gym at Cal-Lutheran. But Angel Stadium is about an hour away from the nearest fires; the only evidence is a very faint burning smell in the evening air.
It’s eerily quiet at practice. The renovations at Angel Stadium include the sound system, so the only soundtrack is the 20 mph winds. The voices of players and coaches carry—someone calls out, “Hey, act like the music is here!” During a week when the Eagles needed to refocus, shaking things up isn’t a bad thing.
“We have a chance to hear each other’s voices, which is a plus,” Cox says. “We are used to having music, practice being really hype. We are doing a good job this week of bringing the energy on our own. Sometimes you need that, especially on the road.”
Costa Mesa, Calif.
It’s the end of the workday—two full hours later than it would be back in Philadelphia. At the NovaCare Complex, the final film session of the day usually wraps at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Built into the schedule in California is the 20-minute drive to and from the team hotel to Angel Stadium, though that’s not much different from most players’ commutes in Philly. Veteran players guess there’s another reason for the longer workdays out here. One night the receivers went out for a position group dinner at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, but other than that, “we haven’t really had time,” Torrey Smith says. “They tailored the schedule that way.”
Costa Mesa, Calif.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is loitering in the hotel lobby. So is general manager Howie Roseman. Upstairs in a meeting room, the entire roster is preparing to fan-boy, hard. Due any minute now is a special guest who happens to be a self-proclaimed “neurotic” Eagles fan.
When the guest pulls up in a black SUV, former Eagles great Brian Dawkins, now in the team’s front office, heads outside to greet him. Hotel staffers scramble to prevent photos as the guest walks inside, his slim 6’6” frame unmistakable, and even more so the nickname printed on the back of his black T-shirt: BLACK MAMBA. He leans in for a bro hug with Lurie and then Roseman.
“Good to see you,” Kobe Bryant says.
The 18-time NBA All-Star and five-time NBA champion was nervous about speaking to the team. Like any true Eagles fan, “I didn’t want to jinx anything,” admits Bryant, who attended high school in Lower Merion, just outside of Philadelphia. He was never superstitious as a player, but when he’s watching the Eagles he’ll stay in one spot as long as they’re doing well—and then switch as soon as something goes wrong.
“I’m not going to begin by talking about what a big fan I am,” Bryant says, standing up in front of the team. “I’m not even going to say that.”
For 30 minutes Bryant tells a room of hopeful champions about the ingredients of his own championship teams. Focus on the smallest details, he says. Don’t let the hype distract you. Hours later, players would still be shouting in the locker room about the so-called Mamba Mentality he imparted to them: Kill everything! Make the guy across from you wish he were an accountant! (Not that there’s anything wrong with being an accountant). Bryant only stops his address when it’s time for the team to leave for practice.
“Guys, 11 o’clock, buses are leaving!” Pederson calls out. “11 o’clock!”
Before hopping into his car, Bryant puts on a midnight green No. 8 jersey given to him by the team. “I think the character of this team is special, and that’s what wins championships, is the character of the team, the spirit of the team,” Bryant says as the team buses speed off toward State Route 55. “You have certain moments where you go up and down, but when the spirit of the team is a strong one, it’s a collective one, then you have something that’s really special. Fingers crossed.”
Culver City, Calif.
On a football field somewhere among the colony of TV studios in Culver City, an Eagles contingent films an episode of “The Goldbergs,” the ABC comedy set in Jenkintown, Pa, in the 1980s. Roseman, team president Don Smolenski, play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese and former Eagles receiver Mike Quick are all on set. “What I loved about it is, they were nervous, and I was heckling them,” says WIP morning show host Angelo Cataldi, who came by to watch. “They did fine.”
An In-N-Out truck is waiting downstairs after practice. Coaches, who leave the stadium early to review practice tape at the hotel, grab a meal on the way out. Players sit in a stadium box upstairs, chowing down on Double-Doubles. “It’s the same with baseball players,” says Maida, the local. “All these guys want In-N-Out.”
A team of six California Highway Patrol officers leads the Eagles caravan up to the home-plate entrance of Angel Stadium. Pederson hops off Bus 1. Carson Wentz unloads from Bus 2. It’s the last day of preparation for the Rams, and the team will run a 30-minute “mock game” just after noon.
There’s a private entrance for buses that enters through the back of the stadium and underground, but the Eagles preferred this way in, to minimize the distance their players have to walk to the clubhouse. A smattering of fans is lined up waiting for them, including a quartet of Eagles supporters who flew in from Utah for the game. Earlier today they went to the L.A. Coliseum hoping to spot the team. A security guard told them the team would instead be at Angel Stadium, so they made the 30-mile drive to Anaheim for a 90-second glimpse of the players filing in.
It’s surprisingly busy at the stadium—and not just because the parking lots are being used for Disney characters working at nearby Disneyland. On Friday, just as the Eagles were about to begin practice, the Angels landed free-agent crown jewel Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese star who is both a starting pitcher and a slugger.
The Eagles will leave the stadium by 1:30 p.m. At 3, just feet from where their team buses pull up, the Angels will introduce Ohtani in a press conference open to the public outside the stadium. Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Trout—Ohtani’s new teammate and Eagles megafan—is getting married in the snow. “Just a quiet Saturday,” Maida says, just before the Eagles begin unloading.
Brittania Pub, Santa Monica, Calif.
When the old Eagles bar in Santa Monica—yes, there is absolutely an Eagles bar in Santa Monica—closed down a few years back, there was a scouting process to see which other hangout was worthy of taking its place. The winner was Brittania Pub, located on Santa Monica Boulevard, steps from the 3rd Street Promenade. On NFL Sundays, only Eagles fans are let through the doors, and only Eagles games are shown on the TVs. Today, with thousands of Eagles fans in town, the bar is already filling up just after lunchtime. The drink special—$3 Miller Lites starting at 9 a.m.—doesn’t hurt, either.
On the TV is the snow-covered Army-Navy game at the Linc, a reminder of the winter weather fans left back East. At the bar a group of three friends and rec basketball league teammates from Philadelphia discuss the implications of tomorrow’s game on the chances of a parade down Broad Street. Over by the window are two brothers, Kent and Brent, North Dakota State alums dressed in Bisons colors. They grew up Vikings fans, but since native son Wentz was drafted to Philadelphia No. 2 overall last year, Brent has been to at least five Eagles games all over the country. A playoff game between the Eagles and Vikings, they explain, could rip the state of North Dakota apart. Then, they raise their Miller Lites to the success of the pride of North Dakota. “Dilly, dilly!” they toast.
Just then, Cataldi, the WIP host, walks in. Brent’s wife, despite never living in the Philly area, immediately recognizes him—they are loyal listeners of Philly sports talk radio now. “E … A … G…” he calls out, starting the Eagles chant. Then, he adds, “Pace yourself! There’s a game tomorrow.”
Cataldi is bummed that his co-host, Al Morganti, was stuck in Philadelphia due to the snow. He’s going to be depressed, he says, if the Coliseum isn’t like an Eagles home game. Earlier this season Eagles fans overtook the Chargers’ StubHub Center—and for Sunday he’s predicting 25,000 to 30,000 loud Eagles fans, “who are going to drown out the far more apathetic Rams fans,” he says. In his 28 years as a radio talk show host in Philadelphia, he says he’s never seen the city more excited about an Eagles team—a bold proclamation. But like much of the city, which has been waiting for a championship for 57 years, a part of him is waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“I’m nervous for tomorrow, really nervous, because we are a little bit in uncharted territory,” Cataldi says. “This is such a young team, that we didn’t expect to be this good this fast, especially Wentz. So, after what happened in Seattle, everyone is going, uh oh. Is that the beginning of the inevitable decline? Because we have been conditioned for 57 years that the Eagles don’t win it all. At some point, they break your heart. Is this the start of that? That’s why a lot of people are out here to say, well, we are going to make it a home game. If they lose, they are going to lose on a home field, 3,000 miles from their actual home.”
By 6 p.m., the bar is so packed that the doorman is turning people away—they’re at capacity and cannot fit any more people inside. Out in front, the Green Legion fan club is set up at a picnic table, passing out pre-purchased wristbands and passes for tomorrow’s festivities. They’ve sold 1,500 fan packages to this game; tickets to the game were long gone weeks ago, and on Friday night they finally cut off selling spots even just to their Sunday morning “festival” (The City of Santa Monica, clearly not a football town, doesn’t like to use the word “tailgate”). The club’s website announces in capital letters: ALL LA PACKAGES ARE 100% SOLD OUT. PLEASE DO NOT CONTACT US. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS.
Peeking out of one of the boxes is an envelope labeled WENTZ. Is that ... the same Wentz? “Distant, distant relative,” says the president of the fan club.
FOX began building this set six days earlier to host its NFL Sunday studio show live from the Coliseum. It’s not common practice, but there’s so much hype around Eagles-Rams that the network decided it deserved the College GameDay treatment. If the Eagles fans at the set don’t outnumber the Rams fans in number, they certainly do in volume (this would be true at the game, too). The FOX hosts are doing the halftime show for the early slate of games, and while they’re on air, it seems 10 seconds don’t go by without someone breaking out into the E-A-G-L-E-S chant or the “Fly, Eagles, Fly” fight song. One fan hoists a sign saying HI TO UNCLE SAL BACK IN PHILLY. Another, presumably another member of Wentz’ traveling Bisons herd, holds up one that reads BRINGIN THE <3 FROM NORTH DAKOTA.
It’s one of those plays—and there were many by the Eagles on Sunday—that makes you to do a double-take (the good kind). How, exactly, did the ball get there? On a fourth-and-goal, the strong hands of Alshon Jeffery sandwich the end points of the football that Wentz had knifed in between traffic, and the receiver pits it against his left quad in the end zone. Philadelphia had lost the lead coming out of halftime, giving up two touchdowns to the Rams in a span of 1:34, a throw to Sammy Watkins and a blocked punt returned for a score. The 2-yard pass to Jeffery gives Philadelphia back a 31-28 lead late in the third quarter. It’s Wentz’s fourth passing touchdown of the day and 33rd of the season, breaking the single-season franchise record set by Sonny Jurgensen in 1961.
All afternoon Wentz had been making the kinds of throws that were almost too good to believe. There was the 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trey Burton in which Wentz defined the concept of a quarterback threading the needle, locating the ball precisely between the Rams safety on top of Burton and the linebacker underneath. Or the third-and-1 play early in the second quarter when Wentz dodged a rushing linebacker, juked a defensive lineman and made a 12-yard throw off his back foot with another linebacker bearing down on him. Ball placement and pocket awareness are two of the attributes that separate the best quarterbacks from the rest of the pack, and Wentz, at 24, is already demonstrating mastery of both.
But on the drive that ended in the Jeffery score, something was not right. Four plays earlier, Wentz had run the ball in for a touchdown—nullified by a suspect holding call on Lane Johnson—and his lower body got sandwiched by safety Mark Barron and defensive end Morgan Fox as he dove across the goal line. After a third-down incompletion, Wentz looked hobbled as he walked to the sideline and then back out to go for it on fourth down. Even on the throw to Jeffery, he stood rooted in place as he scanned the field—not his usual m.o.
Following the touchdown, Wentz walks off the field and ducks inside the blue medical tent. He then walks slowly to the locker room, escorted by two staffers. Nine minutes later, the team makes the announcement: QB Carson Wentz (knee) will not return. Foles is warming up on the sideline.
In the locker room, Eagles players are sporting new hats—black and gray, stickers still affixed—that read NFC EAST CHAMPIONS. Today, with a 43-35 win against the Rams, the Eagles are now 11-2, alone atop the conference and well-positioned for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
The game turned on a play by Chris Long. Soon after Wentz left the field, the Rams had retaken the lead on a run by Todd Gurley. The defense hadn’t been at its best all day, yielding more than 24 points for just the second time this season. But in a sequence that is representative of the Eagles locker room culture, the savvy veterans took advantage of an opportunity. With the Rams holding a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, L.A. right tackle Rob Havenstein left the field injured. Graham went against backup Darrell Williams on the next snap. Then it was Long’s turn. Graham, watching from the sideline after subbing out, knew Long would take advantage. Sure enough, he beat Williams upfield and looped around the pocket to Jared Goff, who was on a deep play-action drop. With his right hand, Long swiped the ball out.
Safety Rodney McLeod recovered the forced fumble and returned the ball to the offense. The play set up the field goal that put the Eagles back on top, 37-35, with 3:50 left.
“If we were worth a damn on defense, we had to make a stop,” Long says in the locker room. “We owed it to the offense.”
Nothing about the final minutes lacked drama. The defense needed another stop. Got it. The offense needed another first down. Got it. Foles, who himself has 36 games of starting experience, delivered a gutsy 9-yard throw to Agholor, the third-year receiver who’s in the midst of a redemptive season. Foles spotted the Rams in two-man coverage; he knew Agholor would have a one-on-one matchup inside; and he placed the ball away from the defender. With a single second left the Rams got the ball back trailing by two, as a red sunset overtook the sky. Graham, the pass rusher who’s having a career season, snatched a desperation lateral by the Rams out of the air and ran it into the end zone, setting off a charge of at least 10 Eagles players doing Lambeau-style leaps into the traveling Eagles party.
The adrenaline carried the Eagles while the game was still going on, and up the Coliseum tunnel, and into the locker room. But when they enter the locker room—where Wentz is waiting to congratulate them—reality sets in: They’ll have to try to achieve the rest of their goals, beyond a division title, without not only their MVP, but “arguably the MVP of the league,” says receiver Torrey Smith. In a quiet moment, McLeod finds his quarterback. “We did that for you, man,” he tells him. Wentz smiles back and tells him, good job.
Eventually, Wentz emerges from the locker room, wearing the division championship hat and a black brace on his left knee. He rides a cart through the tunnel, head down, typing on his phone, then gets off gingerly at the checkpoint for the team buses. As he walks the short distance to the buses, a stadium employee offers to carry his postgame Qdoba meal for him, then gives him a warm hug. Wentz boards Bus 1 and takes a seat across from Reich, and the Eagles settle in for the uncertain journey ahead.
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