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‘A Team Makes a Miracle’: How the Underdog Eagles Became the Unlikeliest Super Bowl Champs

The Eagles played everything right—from the underdog card to the play-calling at critical moments—to knock off the Patriots in the biggest Super Bowl upset in a decade. There really did seem to be something beyond the ordinary about this team and its bond

MINNEAPOLIS — The Lombardi Trophy had been in their possession for more than an hour when the Eagles finally gathered ’round for their last huddle of the season. This was the first Super Bowl win in franchise history, so forgive them if they let the post-game chaos linger.

An impromptu mosh pit broke out in the center of the locker room, with champagne and Gatorade and handfuls of postgame snacks flying in the air as players bounced up and down to “Dreams and Nightmares,” the track from Philly rapper Meek Mill that became their anthem this postseason. Tight end Zach Ertz, who caught the game-winning touchdown, yanked off his number 86 jersey and implored a nearby throng of reporters not to steal it. Down the hall, Nick Foles and Doug Pederson arrived for their post-game press conferences at the same time; the Super Bowl-winning quarterback said he didn’t mind waiting. “I’ll watch,” Foles suggested, with a shrug.

Now they were all clustered around their coach, in front of a pop-up banner that read SUPER BOWL LII CHAMPIONS, still trying to process their 41–33 win against the defending-champion Patriots. As he had done so many times this season, Pederson chose the right words for the moment.

“An individual can make a difference,” Pederson told his players, “but a team makes a miracle.”

Pederson and Lurie celebrate Philly’s first Super Bowl title.

Pederson and Lurie celebrate Philly’s first Super Bowl title.

This was a fitting statement for an Eagles team that had been counted out many times this season. They lost their most versatile running back; their signal-caller on defense; their All-Pro left tackle. When they lost MVP-candidate quarterback Carson Wentz to a season-ending ACL tear in early December, the toll seemed insurmountable. But this was a perfect marriage of a team and its city, the Eagles embracing their underdog status by wearing dog masks and trolling their doubters and playing and coaching like they had nothing to lose. What’s more Philly than that?

Much about this game defied expectation: That it turned into a rollicking shootout in which both teams combined to smash the record for total yards gained—not just in the Super Bowl, but in any game in NFL history; that Foles would go toe to toe with the greatest quarterback of all time; that Tom Brady would have the ball with 141 seconds to work with, down by five points, and not eke out another great escape.

But the Eagles decided long ago that they were going to buck convention. So here they were, with a starting quarterback who less than two years ago pondered retirement to become a pastor, and a coach whose only previous experience running a team before 2016 was at Calvary Baptist Academy a decade ago, stopping the Patriots from winning their sixth ring this century. “I told y’all,” said receiver Alshon Jeffery, who’d pulled a modern-day Joe Namath in the days leading up to the game.

For the Patriots, Super Bowl LII didn’t change a legacy of excellence that is still unmatched. As for the Eagles, for Pederson, for Foles, for a city that had to grease lampposts to prevent fans from scaling them—their legacy is forever changed.

How did the Eagles pull off the greatest Super Bowl upset since the 2007 Giants stunned the perfect Patriots a decade ago? It starts with Foles, the ultimate underdog. His signing last March turned heads, if only for the fact that it seemed to be an awfully expensive move at the backup quarterback position. The Eagles signed Foles to a two-year, $11 million deal and cut Chase Daniel despite still owing him several million dollars. Over the past two years the Eagles have lived by the philosophy that you can never overpay at the most important position on the field. The decision paid off, as did some of the other savvy roster moves by GM Howie Roseman and the Eagles front office: signing Jeffery and former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, and trading for Jay Ajayi midseason—all critical pieces during the Eagles’ playoff run.

Foles, a former Eagles draft pick, nearly walked away from the game after a rough 2015 during which he was traded to the Rams and benched. With the help of his faith, and a soul-searching solo camping trip, he decided to give it another shot. He spent 2016 in Kansas City under former Eagles coach Andy Reid, then returned to Philadelphia to back up Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft. Then, in December, Wentz’s left knee got sandwiched between two defenders during a road game against the Rams.

Pederson did a masterly job of calling the right plays, and taking the right risks.

Pederson did a masterly job of calling the right plays, and taking the right risks.

With Foles in charge, the Eagles offense sputtered during the final games of the regular season, fostering skepticism about how the team would fare in the postseason even though it was the top seed in the NFC. But, “we didn’t doubt him,” Pederson said. “He didn’t doubt us.”

The Eagles used a run-heavy game plan in their divisional round win against the Falcons, but soon turned Foles loose. Pederson used a steady diet of run-pass options, plays that help the offense be right against the defense, but perhaps more than anything else, he stoked Foles’s confidence. The first three plays of Super Bowl LII were passes; from the moment Foles dropped a dime on a 34‑yard touchdown pass to Jeffery in the first quarter it was clear the underdogs were ready to hang with the big dogs.

“I felt calm,” Foles said. Until the trophy presentation, that is, when he held his baby daughter, Lily, on the trophy stage, and struggled to choke back tears.

Philly Special may sound like a signature cheesesteak order, but the phrase now holds an even more exalted place in the city’s lore. It’s the name of the play that perfectly represents the team that finally broke a 56-season NFL championship drought. Pederson and his offensive staff are constantly combing film for new ideas—that’s part of the reason they were able to have offensive success regardless of whether Wentz or Foles was under center. Philly Special was copied from a play the Bears ran in the final week of the 2016 season, an otherwise meaningless game played by a backup QB.

The play itself was remarkable, as was the moment Pederson chose to call it. The Eagles had a fourth-and-one from the Patriots’ one-yard line at the end of the first half, holding a three-point lead. Take the points, right? That would have been the conservative move. But all season long, Pederson has been willing to gamble. “He told us [Saturday] night,” said right tackle Lane Johnson, “that he was going to be aggressive; that he wasn’t going to change for anybody.”

It’s a common trap teams fall into when facing the Pats: playing scared or taking themselves out of their own game. But Pederson didn’t hesitate to use a trick play the coaching staff had drawn up before the NFC title game and had repped only a handful of times. It had always worked, players said, but never as well as it did on Super Bowl Sunday.

Philly Special, just like they drew it up.

Philly Special, just like they drew it up.

The play called for Foles to shift up to the line of scrimmage before the snap, and for rookie running back Corey Clement to take the direct snap. Then, Clement pitched the ball to tight end Trey Burton; Burton, who played some quarterback at Florida, threw to a wide-open Foles. The quarterback was thrilled to have the chance play receiver. “A quarterback, going out on a route?” he said. The Patriots, who notoriously prepare for everything, weren’t prepared for this one.

“Have you ever seen a play call like that in the Super Bowl?” Burton asked.

The Patriots have a history of starting slowly in these games: Stephen Gostkowki’s 26‑yard field goal marked the first time a Brady-Belichick team had scored in the first quarter of the Super Bowl, and this was their eighth try.

Brady said he felt like the Patriots never really got in control. There was the 26-yard field goal attempt by Gostkowski that clanged off the left upright after a bad snap, uncharacteristic for a Patriots team that prides itself on special teams. Brandin Cooks, New England’s best deep threat, was lost early in the second quarter after being leveled by safety Malcolm Jenkins on a blind-side helmet-to-helmet hit. And the Patriots’ own trick play, a pass from Danny Amendola to Brady on a third down—a strange call given Brady’s infamous hand injury—didn’t have the same success as Philadelphia’s. Brady dropped the ball, costing New England a sure first down.

The Eagles held a steady lead until the 9:22 mark of the fourth quarter, when Brady completed a second touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski to tie the game at 32. It seemed like the moment that we’d grown accustomed to seeing over the Patriots’ second dynasty years, the one that, against all odds, turns the tide of the game in their favor. The Patriots, after all, have 283 diamonds in their Super Bowl LI rings for a reason: They famously rallied back from a 28–3 deficit to the Falcons to earn the title they were defending.

But the Eagles hadn’t backed down all night, all month. Why would they now? On their next drive, facing a fourth-and-one from their own 45-yard line, Pederson didn’t hesitate. Foles found Ertz for a two-yard gain. Move the chains. With 2:25 to play, the Eagles had the ball on New England’s 11-yard line, third-and-seven. Fittingly, a controversial catch would play a role in deciding the season.

Ertz caught the pass, extending his body over the goal line in a way that was eerily similar to the would-be game-winner by Steelers tight end Jesse James in the regular-season game between New England and Pittsburgh, which determined AFC home-field advantage. But in this case, Ertz was deemed to have possessed the ball long enough to become a runner. The score was confirmed, and the Eagles went back on top. After a failed two-point conversion, the Eagles led, 38–33, with 2:21 to play.

How many times have we seen this before—Brady, with the ball in his hands, with a chance to win the game? Even Pederson admitted he was thinking, “it’s too much time.” On the sidelines, he challenged the defense. They hadn’t sacked Brady all night. Maybe now was the time. “I know people were probably watching at home thinking, where’s that Philly rush,” said defensive end Chris Long.

Enter Brandon Graham. He was a first-round pick in 2010 out of Michigan who had been deemed a bust early in his career; before that, he played for a high school team in Detroit whose facilities consisted of a dirt field with no bleachers or lights. “He’s been an underdog his whole life,” said Rod Oden, his high school coach at Crockett Tech who was in the stands for the game.

Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox was double-teamed on the play, leaving Graham one-on-one inside against right guard Shaq Mason. He shoved his blocker back into Brady, acting like he was going to bull rush him but then swiping inside, giving him a lane to reach up his left hand and push out the ball. Graham didn’t even know the ball came out until he saw rookie Derek Barnett recover it.

Brady hit all the numbers, but the ultimate goal was just out of reach.

Brady hit all the numbers, but the ultimate goal was just out of reach.

Brady sat on the field, stunned. “We kept coming,” Graham said, an assertion with broader meaning than just that one play.

The Eagles ran the clock down to 1:05, exhausted the Patriots’ timeouts and kicked a field goal. Brady had one last chance, needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to force overtime. After an unsuccessful reverse on the kickoff return, Brady had only 58 seconds to work with and was starting at his own nine-yard line. New England advanced it to midfield, but the last-gasp pass to Gronkowski, surrounded by Eagles defenders in the end zone, fell incomplete. The clock showed zeroes, and the Eagles rushed the field.

Closely following Doug Pederson into his post-game press conference were his wife, Jeannie, and his mother. Both had flecks of midnight green confetti still stuck in their hair from the on-field celebration. As Pederson talked about what the win meant to him—somehow calling it “rewarding” didn’t seem to be enough—Jeannie hugged her mother-in-law, Teri, and whispered in her ear.

“The first ever,” she said, “in Philadelphia history.”

Jeffrey Lurie, who has owned the Eagles since 1994, praised the team’s resiliency. Long, who with Blount won a Super Bowl with the Patriots last year, called his current team “as special of a group that ever played.” It was in August when Long draped an arm around Jenkins for reasons that had nothing to do with football but everything to do with supporting his teammate in his fight for racial equality and criminal justice reform. Wentz walked around with a slight limp from his December knee surgery but smiled with genuine enthusiasm as he talked with Ertz about his game-winning catch.

Foles, who nearly quit two years ago, basked in the confetti with his wife and daughter.

Foles, who nearly quit two years ago, basked in the confetti with his wife and daughter.

Pederson, a players’ coach in the best kind of way, ceded the floor to Jenkins during his team’s final huddle. It was Jenkins who had given an impassioned speech on that December evening in Los Angeles, when the Eagles had won the NFC East but lost Wentz for the year. No excuses, he told his teammates that day. We’ve got bigger goals still to achieve.

They had now achieved that goal, and Jenkins admitted he didn’t have much more to say.

“I’m so proud to be a part of this team,” he said. “I’ve been in the league for f------ nine years. I ain’t been a part of nothing like this or seen nothing like this. . . . I said it a few weeks ago, be legendary. That s--- is etched in stone. Hey, bring that up here.”

And so the Eagles passed the Lombardi Trophy forward, one by one, individuals working together to make their own kind of miracle.

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