MINNEAPOLIS — The Eagles’ vaunted defensive front had been frustrated for three quarters. The unit had dominated all season, but here they were struggling and flailing like everyone else in the NFL against Patriots QB Tom Brady. There were plenty of reasons for this—they were getting chip-blocked, they were anxious to make a big play—and there was just one: it’s Tom Brady.
What a game this had been. Brady had thrown for 465 yards and three touchdowns, but somehow Eagles QB Nick Foles had been just as good, throwing for 373 yards and a touchdown—and even catching a touchdown pass thrown by TE Trey Burton. The Eagles led 38-33 with less than three minutes left in the game. They were in a good place, except for one problem: They were playing against Tom Brady.
The ball was snapped, Brady dropped back and four men rushed at the greatest player in NFL history, each with his own story.
Chris Long had played for the Patriots last year. When he signed with the Eagles, he was very conscious of the possibility he might sit home on Super Bowl Sunday and watch his old team in another title. Every day this season, as he drove down Broad Street to go to work, he imagined how absolutely insane the parade through Philadelphia would be. Long pushed from the outside, and told himself don’t overrun the play. He would either ride in that parade or lose in the Super Bowl to the team he left.
Fletcher Cox plays for the Eagles, but also for his brother Shaddrick, who died of a heart attack at age 34. Cox said he wanted to make him proud, but he also talked about how hard it was that Shaddrick couldn’t be here. Predictably, Cox drew a double-team on this play. He often does, and he never minds, because it allows the rest of the defensive line to make plays.
Brandon Graham is in his eighth year with the Eagles, so he knows the frustrations of a city that had not won a title since 1960. He also knows he can beat a guard to the quarterback—even with a hamstring which he strained in the first half (by the fourth quarter, he said, he couldn’t even feel the pain). Graham pushed from the inside, the way he has so often this year, past Patriots guard Shaq Mason and poked the ball out of Brady’s hand.
Derek Barnett knew the Eagles’ defensive line was supposed to dominate but it hadn’t. He knew what you knew: “If we would have lost the game, that would have been our fault.” But Barnett saw the ball in the air and recovered the fumble for the biggest play in the life of a man who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee. Oh, if Reggie could have seen the party this would start … Reggie and Jerome Brown and Buddy Ryan and the rest. They are gone, but they are a part of this, because Philly does not trade its old heroes for new ones. There are 31 other fan bases in the NFL. None of them is quite like the one in Philadelphia.
You know what’s crazy about this Eagles team? They didn’t seem to stress about anything. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, the team leader, says it was the easiest team to lead. They never came close to a players-only meeting. The day after star quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL, with everybody in Philly freaking out about their Iggles, coach Doug Pederson met with the team and “erased all that,” Long said. They would be fine, he said.
Maybe we didn’t think Foles would beat Brady and the Patriots. The Eagles expected it, partly because they were sure they were the best team in the NFL. As Foles said afterward, “I felt calm. The big thing that helped me was knowing that I didn’t have to be Superman.”
The Patriots spook teams sometimes—they trick them into thinking something awful will happen, and then it does. The Eagles had one play like that, when Foles threw a good pass to Alshon Jeffery that somehow bounced around and got picked off by a safety who wasn’t even covering Jeffery.
But Foles made it clear from the opening drive that he would not be spooked. On the drive following the interception, on fourth-and-goal from the one, Pederson called a trick play called “Philly Special” (it sounds like it was named after a cheesesteak) in which Foles caught a touchdown pass from TE Trey Burton. They had been practicing it for a few weeks, but even Burton didn’t think Pederson would call it on fourth down.
It seemed crazy, but it wasn’t. The Patriots knew they had to shore up the line of scrimmage, which meant Foles could probably slip away and get wide open. He is a backup quarterback but one of the best all-around athletes on the team, so this was an easy play for him.
These Eagles are a blend of advanced thinking and basic values. They go for it on fourth down and practice hard, and they show Foles that they trust him by letting him rip the ball against a dynasty. Long dismissed any magic formula, saying “The reason we won is we’ve got good people, unselfish people, and we’ve got really good players.”
Nothing happened in the first 57 minutes on Sunday night to make you believe the Eagles would force a turnover near the end. Yet Graham and Barnett did it. The Eagles had a five-point lead and the ball on the Patriots’ 31 with 2:09 left … but don’t forget, he is Tom Brady. The legend walked back to the Patriots’ sideline and thought, “We’re getting the ball back.”
How do we explain Eagles fans? They are tortured but still full of bravado; they never forget that sports are only fun if you believe. Red Sox fans wrote poems about their championship drought and Cubs fans wrote ballads. Eagles fans talked trash.
Philadelphia has had some very good teams, teams with great personality and impressive talent, teams you could fall in love with. They just hadn’t won the whole thing like the rest of the neighborhood had. In the last 35 years, NFC East rivals Washington, Dallas and the New York Giants combined to win 10 Super Bowls. If you believe, as Philadelphians do, that rival football teams are not worthy of the profanities you will yell at them anyway, that kind of success is galling. Yet you always got the sense that Philly fans wouldn’t trade their team for any other. Philadelphia is the Iggles and the Iggles are Philadelphia.
Brady was right, by the way: The Patriots did get the ball back, but the Eagles had a 41–33 lead by then, and their defensive front was energized now. It went after Brady the way we expected all along, forcing three straight incompletions and leaving Brady, Belichick and Rob Gronkowski with one last chance, a desperate Hail-Mary heave from their own 49-yard line. It fell incomplete as time expired. Brady’s astounding 508 passing yards wasn’t quite enough to win his sixth Super Bowl, but it should earn him Patriot of the Week.
“Hats off to them,” said Patriots receiver Danny Amendola, who kept his ski cap on as he said it, an oddly fitting gesture.
Belichick, the league’s preeminent genius, got outcoached; defense and special teams, his first two loves, both failed him. Malcolm Butler, hero of the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl title, didn’t even play. Belichick said Butler was not injured or being disciplined. The Patriots are answering questions other teams usually have to answer. Brady said, “We had a lot of yards (in the first half). We just didn’t have a lot of points. We never really played on our terms.”
The Eagles? They played it cool. Graham accepted congratulations from his friend Draymond Green. Running back Jay Ajayi—who was dressed traditionally in a Super Bowl champions t-shirt and a Union Jack wrapped around his shoulders, sporting gold teeth—talked about how easily he fit into the Eagles after a mid-season trade.
“Philly’s burnin’ down!” Ajayi said in the locker room after the game, after seeing reports of the celebration in Philadelphia. He has not been there long, but he has been there long enough. He understands what this means.
None of them seemed surprised. Underneath those dog masks, they were all laughing this month. “The world thought we were underdogs,” Jenkins said. “We didn’t.” He is Tom Brady. But they are the Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl champions.
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