PHILADELPHIA — Tom Brady, Nick Foles. Goliath, David. Just the way the Eagles like it.
The Philly locker room had no Jalen Ramseys on Sunday night, no mouths writing checks their play won’t be able to cash in Super Bowl 52. This was an admiring place, almost grooving on the fact that they were going to get a shot to knock off the dynasty that simply will not die, led by Bill Belichick and Brady.
“I was eating Tom’s meals all offseason,” said backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who must have gone heavy on the avocados.
“We’re playing the greatest quarterback of all time, and probably the greatest coach of all time,” owner Jeffrey Lurie said.
“People doubt Tom,” said defensive end Chris Long, “and he just goes out there and rips people’s hearts out. That’s what we’re up against.”
The Eagles will take their Kombucha-drinking backup quarterback, and their don’t-worry-be-happy head coach, and their dog masks (two players wore the badges of underdogness in the post-game locker room), and they’ll take their chances against the team playing in its eighth Super Bowl in 18 years in Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis on Feb. 4. “I think we got the stones to hang in there,” said Long.
The Patriots have been at this thing for so long that, while New England was playing in the first three Brady/Belichick Super Bowls, Doug Pederson was Brett Favre’s backup quarterback in Green Bay. And no one was wiping the smile off Pederson’s face in the locker room Sunday night. There would be time for game-planning and logistics early this week.
Now, though, glee.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl,” Pederson said. “We’re going to the stinkin’ Super Bowl.”
One game was a 31-point snoozer that still drove the home crowd so crazy fans were doing back flips on the streets outside the ballpark—Philadelphia 38, Minnesota 7. The other game was filled with gasps and dramatic turns and huge plays down the stretch—New England 24, Jacksonville 20. You’d figure the five-time Super Bowl champs, with the presumptive MVP quarterback, would be on the right side of the snoozer. Not so. It was Foles who engineered the rout, with some Dan Fouts-like deep balls thrown perfectly on the mark. And it was Brady who had to fight for his life, bum hand and all.
How many times do you have to see the Patriots in one of those games you’re sure they’ll lose, and then you keep watching Brady make plays the other quarterback can’t, and you think, Is this game actually 70 minutes long? As Long said, “He just goes out and rips people’s hearts out.”
You’ll think of so many plays, some late in Brady’s two-touchdown-pass, 158-yard fourth quarter against the best rush he’s seen this year. I’ll think of this one: Jacksonville up 20-10, 10:49 left in the game, third-and-18 from the New England 25. If the Patriots have to punt here, it’s not impossible they’d get the ball back twice in the last, say, eight minutes. It’s quite possible. Just not certain. The Patriots, though, felt an urgency here for sure—and the play-call by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was perfect.
Jacksonville held back seven men in coverage and rushed four. Four had quite often been enough to pressure and hit Brady all day, and so the Pats kept tight end Dwayne Allen in to chip on the right side, with running back James White chipping on the left before leaking out into the flat. Three receivers—Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola on the left, Phillip Dorsett on the right. All three wideouts ran verticals past the first-down line. White got two Jags to chase him. Bad move by Jacksonville. Amendola ran a deep in-cut in front of free safety Tashaun Gipson, and no one doubled Amendola. Brady threw a laser, low, and Amendola snared it just above the carpet. Gain of 21.
That play doesn’t show up on the huge ones of the day. It should. Without it, New England punts, and Jacksonville gets the ball back with 10-and-a-half minutes left at its 30 or so, up 10. There’s a very good chance Jacksonville wins the game. The Patriots scored two minutes later to make it 20-17.
That's the greatness of the Patriots. In the clutch, Brady converts a third-and-18, then goes no-huddle on the next snap and gains 31 on a flea-flicker pass to Dorsett, and scores three plays later. Remember in the Super Bowl last year, when the Patriots calculated how many possessions they’d have in the last 22 or 23 minutes, and knew that down 25 they’d have the ball enough times to have a real chance? Same thing here. That’s why they needed the conversion so badly—if Jacksonville was efficient, there’s a chance New England could have but one possession the rest of the way.
“Looks like an ACL,” one top Eagles official told owner Jeffrey Lurie on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon six weeks ago. It wasn’t too sunny for Lurie that day, when he heard his franchise wunderkind, Carson Wentz, stunningly was lost for the season. The Eagles found a way to finish off a win over the Rams. But navigating the future? “I was heartbroken,” Lurie said on Sunday night. “The injuries we had—Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Chris Maragos, and then the pinnacle, Carson. It was so much to bear. But in this business, you’ve got to be resilient. And we had Nick.”
Nick Foles. He played fine against the Giants, awful against Oakland and Dallas, and then the Eagles’ game plan last week in the playoff win over Atlanta mostly hid Foles. So what would we see Sunday? Who knew? In Foles’s breakout 2013 season, he threw 27 touchdown passes and two picks; in parts of four seasons since, he’d thrown 28 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He seemed to lose confidence. “When people doubt you, you can feel it. We’re all human and I’m keeping it real. When someone doubts you, you know,” Foles said.
On Sunday, Foles and Sudfeld, the backup, met at the Eagles facility across the street from the Linc around 1 p.m. “We did the hot and cold tubs, contrast,” said Sudfeld. “We just talked about life, just took some deep breaths before this game and talked. Then we got Kombuchas and drove over here. Nick was relaxed.”
He played that way. Beautiful downfield throws—a couple of them pushed, but two were perfect: the 53-yard TD strike to Alshon Jeffery to put the Eagles up 21-7, and the 41-yard fourth-quarter insurance bomb to Torrey Smith that made it 31-7. “He’s not a panic guy,” Long said. “For him now, the preseason’s over. Somebody sits for so long, and then he plays a couple games and it’s 4 degrees out there, it’s not an ideal way to come into the lineup.”
It sounds absurd to put Brady and Foles on the same level entering the Super Bowl. They’re not. But it’s quite likely that Philadelphia’s defense will terrorize Brady much more than the Patriots will hit Foles in Minneapolis. The Eagles converted 71 percent of their third downs on Sunday, against the team with the NFL’s best third-down conversion defense. The Vikings allowed but 25 percent of third downs to be converted. Foles led scoring drives of 75, 76, 60, 75 and 88 yards in the title game. It’s convenient to say he can’t do it twice in a row, or that the big Super Bowl stage will freak him out. Maybe. “I’m around him all the time,” Sudfeld said. “He’s an anchor who doesn’t get moved by all the waves around him.”
The Complete Team
New England 24, Jacksonville 20.
Jags ball. Fourth-and-15 at the New England 43, 1:53 left in the game.
If Brady can convert third-and-18 to save the Patriots, maybe Bortles figured it was his time to take that next step in his professional life: a dagger into the five-time Super Bowl champions. Needing a conversion, Bortles went for more. He stepped up in the pocket, saw rookie Dede Westbrook sprinting from the left slot straight for the right pylon, with New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore a half-step behind.
From Foxboro, Gilmore, the rich free-agent whose play hasn’t always reflected his salary in his first year in New England, picks up the story.
“I kind of anticipated the play,” Gilmore said. “We saw it, I think, twice earlier in the game, so it’s a play they like to run. I have [Westbrook]—that’s the guy the coaches wanted me on. The one thing they tell us a lot here—Coach Belichick, Matty P [defensive coordinator Matt Patricia] and [cornerbacks coach] Josh Boyer—is, ‘Don’t worry about the receiver. Worry about the ball. You be the receiver.’ I trust my technique and ball skills. So at the top of his route, I see the ball. I reach up [with his right hand], and I think I’ve got a good shot to get it and I just knock it down.”
The stunning nature of the pass-breakup was made more significant because it looked like Gilmore stretched his entire body, with his right hand reaching for the sky, to get a piece of the ball. It’s a beautiful defensive play, if there is such a thing, and it made the Foxboro crowd go bonkers.
“You think it would have been a touchdown if you don’t deflect it?” I asked.
“I wasn’t letting him catch it,” he said.
Early in the season, Gilmore, the Buffalo transplant, struggled with communication and his confidence in the Belichick defense. He’s come a long way, and his play, plus one more New England first down, ended the game.