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Were You Not Entertained?

At the end of a year filled with injuries and controversies, Super Bowl 52 was a reminder that the NFL is still king

MINNEAPOLIS — This week stunk. It was cold. The Super Bowl in front of us lacked any real juice. A backup quarterback was starting for one team. The other has been here a zillion times, every story involving those guys has been told, and 44 states are sick of them the same way so many of us were sick of the Yankees 20 years ago.

But guess what? Football is still king. The NFL is still king. And last night is why. At the end of a season that was sideways in so many ways, the NFL proved once again that, when it comes to professional sports leagues, it is the most catlike—always landing on its feet. When many expected a boring Super Bowl, LII proved as exciting as any ever played. The Eagles and Patriots combined for more offensive yards (1,151) not just in a Super Bowl, but in any NFL game ever.

Those storylines that weren’t there? How about the first pure backup quarterback to start a Super Bowl in 27 years going toe-to-toe with, and beating, Tom Brady in a shootout? Or Zach Ertz’s game-winning touchdown being subjected to an extended review, mirroring the most dramatic moment of the Patriots’ season—Steelers tight end Jesse James’ overturned touchdown in Week 15? Or Brandon Graham’s strip sack on a night when the vaunted Eagles pass rush had been held without a sack?

• FOR THE PATRIOTS, IT FELT LIKE AN ENDING: What will this team look like going forward? It’s as uncertain as any time in the Belichick-Brady era.

Super Bowl LII had it all on a night when the league needed it most. Even better, this game provided another example of the anything-can-happen parity that the league beats its chest over, with the underdog Eagles taking down the death star.

“It’s a testament to the guys we have assembled, the coaches we have assembled,” center Jason Kelce told me on the field, with the confetti still falling and his voice gradually rising. “I mean, to have not only talented guys to go in, which is rare, but also to have them coached up and ready to step in without missing a beat … Nick Foles, which backup quarterback goes in and does that?”

That Foles was able to effectively replace Carson Wentz and get here is both a great symbol of who the Eagles are. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, left tackle Jason Peters, swiss army knife Darren Sproles and special teams ace Chris Maragos were also lost for the year, and somehow the team went into the playoffs having incurred all that, and wound up being better than they were during a 13-3 regular season. First they outlasted Atlanta, then they dismantled the Vikings to get here. But this was where it was supposed to end. That is, until it didn’t.

“Doug Pederson, everybody talked bad about him. Everybody talked bad about Nick Foles,” veteran defensive end Chris Long said. “Everybody said that we gotta bring someone else in. Everyone was saying what we couldn’t do. All the people that didn’t want to see us win are the same people that’ll say, ‘We wanted to see you win, we knew you could do it. Stop crying about it.’

“Well, now you gotta live with it. Anybody that talked bad about us, they were wrong.”

Long, like a number of other players, brought up Pederson, and the fact that he only got one vote for coach of the year. He, like some of them, wasn’t the first choice of the Eagles. Neither was Howie Roseman for a time, only re-installed as the team’s personnel czar after Chip Kelly’s consolidation of power in 2015 didn’t work out.

And you can go on down the line. Corey Clement is the undrafted free agent who took Sproles’ spot, and he caught four balls for 100 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Mychal Kendricks is the linebacker the Eagles spent a couple offseasons trying to trade, and he had four tackles as Hicks’ replacement against New England. Halapoulivaati Vaitai is the fifth-round pick who took Peters’ spot, allowed Lane Johnson to stay at right tackle and helped keep Foles clean on the biggest stage.

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“We’re 53 guys,” Zach Ertz said, on the field. “They may have a better player every now and then when we step on the field. We have 53 guys that love playing for one another, that love to compete, and that’s all this thing is about. Football is a game, a game that we love, and every time we step on that field I think you can tell how much we love playing with one another, and how much we love the game.”

• A DEJECTED BRADY SHOWS NO SIGNS OF SLOWING DOWN: His post-game actions solidified the notion that the QB isn’t done yet.

So all these storylines came to life for the NFL on Sunday, and were attached to all the drama anyone could handle. After trailing all night, the Patriots took a 33-32 lead with 9:26 left on a spectacular four-yard touchdown catch by Rob Gronkowski. That’s where many opponents of New England—which had trailed by double-digits in the playoffs four times since 2014, and won all four games—crumble. Instead, Foles drove the Eagles 75 yards, converting a third-and-6 and a fourth-and-1 on throws to Ertz along the way.

Ertz’s 11-yard touchdown on a third-and-7 capped the game-winning drive, and when I asked Ertz afterwards if he thought Foles was capable of pulling off the two-game stretch he just did, an honest answer came back. “Yeah, I don’t know about this good,” he responded. “Man, he was balling.”

And then, fittingly, the Eagles’ depth showed up one more time. Because Philly is so loaded on its defensive front, Graham has played more as an inside rusher this year. So on a second-and-2 with 2:16 left, Patriots guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews doubled Philly star Fletcher Cox, leaving Graham singled up and able to use his athleticism to burn past guard Shaq Mason.

“He’s been a great inside rusher all year,” said Long. “He’s been a hell of an outside rusher, but with the group we have this year, he’s moved around and he’s been able to rush inside and out. I’m so happy for him, so proud of him.”

Long then explained that after a frustrating night, it was the Eagles defense’s willingness to stay after it that made all the difference against Brady and Co.

“He’s the greatest of all-time, but we just had to beat him once,” Long said. “At the end of the day, this is a team. He sliced us up, seven-man protection, getting the ball out. We kept faith in our rushers, and we knew we’d eventually have to take shots. At the end of the game, on those two possessions, he had to get the ball downfield, we kept pounding the rock. And it broke.”

So if it seems like we just went through a lot of seminal points in the game, that’s because this Super Bowl had a lot of them. Big plays. Drama. A David vs. Goliath quarterback matchup. And ultimately, an epic upset.

The NFL has been through a lot this year. The season started with the anthem protests, the associated Colin Kaepernick story, and Donald Trump subsequently involving himself. From there, a power struggle among owners ensued. Meanwhile, the Ezekiel Elliott saga droned on, a Patriots drama cropped up, ratings fell, and shaky officiating and the handling of concussions made headlines.

Conversely, Sunday was a reminder of what the NFL can be. That the sport is capable of producing moments like these explain how the league got to the mountaintop in the first place, and is a sure thing to stay there for the foreseeable future, warts and all. And why, while we might bitch and moan about it from time to time, we can’t help but keep coming back for more.

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