It was a surreal scene. As the Eagles celebrated their NFC championship game victory on the packed turf at Lincoln Financial Field, there was Carson Wentz, cane in hand, hobbling through the crowd. When Wentz went down with a torn left ACL in mid-December, it felt like Philadelphia’s Super Bowl dreams went with him. Yet there he was, holding wide receiver Torrey Smith’s young son, with a gray conference champions T-shirt thrown atop his black hoodie.
Not long after handing off Smith’s kid, the Eagles’ franchise quarterback got a tap on the shoulder. He turned to greet Nick Foles, who locked him in a bear hug before introducing Wentz to his mother, Melissa. “In that moment you just embrace,” Foles said after the win. “It’s been a crazy year, a long year. We work together every single day, long hours. You don’t really have to say anything. A hug goes a long way.”
In a six-week span, Foles has transformed from backup quarterback to inadequate replacement to rock star. Every passerby who spotted Foles in the aftermath of Philadelphia’s 38-7 rout of Minnesota wanted a photo, and he was happy to oblige. The pictures weren’t limited to admirers, either. He also took snapshots with his wife, Tori, and his mom, who handed off her Canon to document the moment. This was a night worth remembering.
Foles has a seven-touchdown game to his credit, but his performance on Sunday evening was unquestionably the finest of his six-year NFL career. He tossed three touchdown passes and finished 26-of-33 for 352 yards, four more yards than Wentz registered in any single game this season. Not only did Foles mimic Wentz’s production, but he also did so while trying out his best Wentz impression. As Foles extended plays, pushed the ball downfield, and orchestrated plenty of third-down magic, it would’ve been fair for onlookers to question if the Eagles had somehow managed to replicate that famous scene from Space Jam; maybe Foles had supernaturally climbed inside Wentz’s body and taken his MVP-caliber talent.
With Foles playing the way he did against Minnesota, the Eagles looked a lot like the team that ran roughshod over the entire league for most of the regular season. Philadelphia owned the most complete roster in football when the 2017 campaign began, an expertly assembled group that rightly earned vice president of football operations Howie Roseman an executive of the year award. From last spring through October’s trade deadline, this front office used shrewd deals, free-agent signings, and the draft to put the final touches on a promising squad that wasn’t quite finished. And the impact of those moves was evident in Sunday’s domination of the Vikings.
Down 7-0 midway through the first quarter and fresh off a three-and-out on their first possession, the Eagles forced Minnesota into a third-and-long just shy of midfield. At the snap, 2017 free-agent signee Chris Long beat backup Vikings right tackle Rashod Hill to the edge and got just enough of quarterback Case Keenum’s right shoulder to force an errant throw. The ball sailed directly to slot corner Patrick Robinson, another free-agent addition in his first season with the club. Robinson danced his way across the field, and fellow cornerback Ronald Darby—acquired in an August trade with Buffalo—threw the final block on running back Jerick McKinnon that propelled Robinson to the end zone. “I don’t think it just pumped up the offense,” Foles said of the pick-six. “I think it pumped up the whole city of Philadelphia. I think everyone down Broad Street heard that.”
Two Vikings drives later, with Minnesota threatening inside the Philly 20-yard line, 2017 first-round selection Derek Barnett, who was chosen with a pick the Eagles got in the 2016 trade for Sam Bradford, slipped past tight end David Morgan’s block and knocked the ball away from Keenum to force another turnover. On the Eagles’ ensuing possession, free-agent prize Alshon Jeffery hauled in a 53-yard touchdown catch after Foles bought just enough time in the pocket. “He looked at me, but when I looked and turned in, I was hoping he didn’t throw it,” Jeffery said. “When I saw him move, I thought it was a scramble play, and I just took it up field, and he did a great job finding me.”
With Philly already leading 24-7 early in the second half, head coach Doug Pederson and his staff refused to let off the gas, dialing up a flea-flicker on a first-and-10 from the Vikings’ 41-yard line. Foles found Smith—playing on a three-year deal he signed in March—for a picture-perfect 41-yard score. “I don’t think I’ve ever run a flea-flicker,” Foles said afterward. “It was my first time. I just tried not to smile.”
Philly’s formula on Sunday was the same one that drove this team to a 13-3 record and the no. 1 seed in the NFC. It controlled the game on both sides of the line of scrimmage, with its front four terrorizing Keenum, and its stellar offensive line stonewalling a terrific Minnesota pass rush. The Eagles were magnificent on third down, converting 10 of 14 opportunities (71.4 percent) against the best third-down defense in NFL history. As he has so often, matchup nightmare Zach Ertz led the way, with several of the tight end’s eight receptions (on eight targets, for 93 yards) coming against first-team All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. And the quarterback play was devastating; Foles was more deep-ball clinician than checkdown artist. The long balls to Jeffery and Smith, along with a cannon shot on the run to Nelson Agholor down the sideline in the third quarter, could not have been placed better.
The Eagles entered this weekend as home underdogs, just as they did in the divisional round against the Falcons. Yet the version of the team on display against Minnesota is perhaps ideally suited to knock off the Patriots in the Super Bowl: It can create pressure with four; its multifaceted backfield can bleed the clock; and critically, it has a quarterback who has shown he can make throws when it matters most. Owner Jeffrey Lurie once again played up the underdog motif after the game, but despite all the dead-eyed poodle masks dotting the stands, these Eagles aren’t scrappy long shots. They’re wolves in underdogs’ clothing.
“Are we underdogs again?” Lurie asked of the team’s championship matchup with New England. “Great. Somehow, I’m not surprised.”
Even with Wentz wearing a bulky brace and dragging his left leg, even with injured left tackle Jason Peters acting as a bystander in photos with the offensive line, even with a quarterback whose last taste of glory came four seasons ago, this group delivered a straight-up ass kicking to a team that seemed to have destiny on its side and gave up 30 points in a game twice all season. Keep greasing those light poles in Crisco: The Eagles are heading to the Super Bowl, and they’re doing so as the scariest bunch in the NFL.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The list of Patriots playoff legends is miles long, and Danny Amendola is now etched onto it forever. New England found itself in desperate need of a middle-of-the-field receiving threat after tight end Rob Gronkowski left Sunday’s AFC championship game toward the end the first half with a concussion. Boy, did Amendola come through. His game-winning touchdown in the back of the end zone was marvelous, complete with a full-extension snag and some toe-drag acrobatics. And that was only part of Amendola’s work on the Pats’ go-ahead drive.
Amendola’s 8-yard reception three plays earlier involved him laying out for a low throw and barely getting his fingertips on the ball, let alone snaring it. With all the injuries he’s suffered over the past few seasons and all the other high-profile weapons at Tom Brady’s disposal, it’s easy to forget just how good Amendola was at his best with the Rams—and how celebrated his original signing with New England was in 2013. He’s undeniably talented, and the notion that he can be an afterthought with the Pats speaks to how deep this offense is. With Julian Edelman out for the season and Gronk on the sideline, New England needed that depth in a 24-20 win over Jacksonville.
2. New England’s pass protection struggled early, but ultimately helped save the day. The Jaguars’ ferocious front four came roaring out of the gates Sunday and appeared set to take over the game. Dante Fowler Jr. got the best of backup right tackle Cameron Fleming to stifle New England’s opening drive, and the pressure kept coming for much of the first half. But as the Patriots went uptempo in the fourth quarter, Jacksonville’s group ran out of gas. On Brady’s huge third-and-18 conversion to Amendola, the Jags used twist stunts on both sides of the line in an effort to put heat on the quarterback. Both were shut down immediately. Against one of the scariest fronts in football, New England’s line proved up to the task.
That’s a good sign considering the challenge that awaits the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Jacksonville’s collection of pass-rushing talent is excellent, but it isn’t deep. That’s not the case with the Eagles. Fatigue is rarely a problem for Philadelphia’s pass-rushing rotation, setting the stage for one of the key matchups that should determine who hoists the Lombardi Trophy.
3. The Eagles offensive line had a great showing against the Vikings’ excellent front. A pass rush led by sack master Everson Griffen was a major component of the Minnesota defense, which finished the season no. 1 in both points allowed and Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA. It wasn’t an issue for Philly on Sunday. The Vikings notched only a single sack in the NFC championship game, and even that came on an extended play that required defensive end Danielle Hunter to jump-cut around right tackle Lane Johnson. The Eagles’ line did just enough to give Foles time to work at every turn. On the broken-play touchdown throw to Jeffery in the first half, for instance, left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai was driven deep into the backfield by Griffen, but managed to keep his body between his quarterback and the defensive end. As a replacement for Jason Peters, Vaitai was the member of Philadelphia’s line whom Minnesota figured to attack. There was nothing to be had coming off his side.
Part of the Eagles’ success against the Vikings’ front came from thorough game planning and preparation. As one of the more complicated defensive schemes in the NFL, Minnesota plays plenty of games with its stunts and blitzes, and the Eagles responded by playing some of their own. Johnson, Coors Light in hand, told reporters after the game that Philly’s line would intentionally point to the wrong linebacker before a snap when the Vikings were using head coach Mike Zimmer’s trademark double-A-gap pressure. The idea was to dupe Minnesota into sending the rusher whom the Eagles intended to block. Johnson also noted that the Eagles spotted a tell from the Vikings’ defensive ends that signaled a Harrison Smith blitz. When the ends aligned head-up over the tackle, a difference of about a foot or two from their usual positioning, the offensive line knew that extra pressure was coming. It’s just one more example of the standout job that Pederson and his staff have done all season.
4. Zach Ertz not only dominated on Sunday—he dominated one of the best defensive players in football. Ertz absolutely cooked Harrison Smith throughout the game, which simply isn’t a sight that anyone is used to seeing. The Eagles love going to Ertz on third down, and scheme plenty of ways to get him open in high-leverage situations. On a third-and-1 early in the second quarter, with Philadelphia threatening in the red zone, Pederson dialed up a rub concept on the right side with Ertz working from the slot and getting help from a screen set by wide receiver Mack Hollins. It resulted in a 6-yard gain.
While Ertz certainly benefited from some of the Eagles’ designs, there were several snaps on which he didn’t need help. One play after running back Corey Clement perfectly executed a blitz pickup to stop Smith coming off the edge and allow Foles to hit Ertz for an 11-yard completion, Ertz lined up as a slot receiver and beat Smith in space for an 8-yard gain.
The fifth-year tight end was a headache for Smith all evening, with Ertz’s best flourish coming toward the end of the first half. With just 23 seconds remaining in the second quarter and the Eagles backed up at their 31-yard line, Ertz roasted Smith with an out-and-up move that left him open for a 36-yard gain and put Philly on the outskirts of field goal range. There was no design help required—just good, old-fashioned route-running expertise against one of the better cover guys in the league.
5. Philly’s pass rush displayed its full array of game-changers. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham weren’t this defense’s only stars on Sunday; Chris Long and Derek Barnett both had hands in turnovers, and Vinny Curry and Malcolm Jenkins also made their presence felt at different points in the game. At times, it felt as if Keenum were under siege from every possible direction. Long did plenty of work around the edge facing backup Minnesota right tackle Rashod Hill, and he combined his speed rushes with some well-timed inside counters to combat Hill’s response.
On a third-and-6 with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter, Long smoked Hill with an inside spin move, hurrying a Keenum throw that fell incomplete and ended the Vikings’ drive. Curry found success inside as well, and with 7:22 left in the third quarter he was able to duck into the B gap (between the guard and the tackle) to prevent Keenum from stepping up in the pocket. Stuck deep in his drop, Keenum couldn’t avoid Graham coming off the opposite edge. Another pass was disrupted.
And as if the Eagles’ defensive line didn’t have enough pass-rush firepower, Jenkins got in the mix in the second quarter, bringing a blitz off the right side that forced Keenum to unload a third-down throw before he was ready. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz combined the Jenkins blitz with a twist between Curry and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan on the same side. Considering how effectively this crew generates pressure without using any tricks, wrinkles like that just seem cruel.
6. The Patriots got James Harrison for next to nothing, and the signing is proving to have championship implications. Harrison had his way with Jaguars rookie right tackle Cam Robinson throughout the second half of Sunday’s game. He consistently made Robinson pay for quick punches after the snap by getting to Robinson’s outside shoulder and then beating him around the edge. What set the Pats’ second-half defensive performance apart from their lackluster early showing was the ability to generate pressure. Harrison paired with Trey Flowers—who is coming on during these playoffs—to give the New England pass rush some teeth.
7. Well, it seems like that Stephon Gilmore contract paid off for New England. The Pats handed the veteran cornerback a five-year, $65 million deal with a staggering $40 million guaranteed this offseason. On Sunday, Gilmore showed why Bill Belichick broke the bank for him. He was solid all afternoon (despite allowing one long Dede Westbrook reception), and he capped his outing with a beautiful pass breakup that sealed the win.
Even as the Pats cycled through players in the front seven after losing linebacker Dont’a Hightower to injury in October, the back end of their defense remained stable. The ability to slot in a guy like Gilmore at one cornerback spot and never think about it again defined how New England sustained a reliable-if-unspectacular unit.
8. There just aren’t many players like Fletcher Cox. The Eagles’ all-world defensive tackle seems to make at least two or three plays per game that make me shake my head and say, “Wow.” Against the Vikings, those came on a pair of run stops within a three-play span on Minnesota’s second drive. On both snaps, Cox worked way down the line of scrimmage laterally, tracked down the running back, and yanked him down (for gains of zero and 2 yards, respectively). Cox’s rare blend of power and stunning quickness makes it possible: His 4.79-second 40-yard dash time at the 2012 combine ranks in the 97th percentile among defensive tackles, and his 7.07-second three-cone drill time ranks in the 99th.
Typically, players are either explosive in a straight line or thrive on their ability to abruptly change direction. Cox can do both, and it’s part of what makes him such a devastating problem for any interior offensive lineman.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: the Eagles’ gorgeous design on this LeGarrette Blount touchdown.
Watching Philadelphia play with defenses in the running game has been a highlight of the season. Blount’s 11-yard rumble against the Vikings was no different. It came on a concept called zone wham, a scheme that requires a tight end to come from a tight H-back alignment and trap the nose tackle. This time, it was tight end Trey Burton flying in from the right side of the formation. With Burton taking care of the nose, both center Jason Kelce and right guard Brandon Brooks were free to release to the second level and take care of Minnesota’s linebackers. No team in football does a better job of devising ways to free up their interior linemen in the ground game.
10. This week in tales of the tape: The Jaguars’ opening touchdown to tight end Marcedes Lewis was just the latest bit of ingenuity from offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and his staff.
Hackett called a brilliant first half against New England, one week after carving apart the Steelers defense. With Jacksonville in the red zone early in the first quarter, Hackett went to a play-action concept that called for Lewis to feign his block just long enough to trick safety Patrick Chung into believing that he wasn’t a receiving threat. The Jags knew the Patriots were likely to play man coverage in this situation, so it proved to be an ideal call in a pivotal moment.
When it came down to it, though, the Jaguars just weren’t able to create enough plays when quarterback Blake Bortles was forced into traditional dropback situations. Rest assured: This offensive staff’s performance all season is a promising sign for what’s to come in Jacksonville.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us:
Pick one: Amendola making that toe tap or a 40-year-old Brady rifling in that throw. This duo saved the Patriots’ season.