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The Perfect Game

Led by a quarterback who had almost called it quits two years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles overcame one of the best games from the best quarterback of all time. For Nick Foles—and for anyone who watched—it won’t ever get any better than Super Bowl LII.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Something happened on Sunday that before then I’d seen only in movies. Tom Brady’s Hail Mary pass sailed through the air and into a sea of jumping, diving players, and no one could tell exactly what was going on. So, in the middle of the biggest play in the biggest game, everyone in the stadium fell silent. Everything stopped. I have covered hundreds of games, and I have never seen this many people take a deep breath all at once. It was the worst sports movie cliché, and it was really happening.

Everything seems special inside the Super Bowl because no one — fans, media, coaches, and players — can totally believe that they’ve actually made it there, so it only makes sense that the nerves are more pronounced, too. The nearly 70,000 people inside U.S. Bank Stadium were too afraid to move. My colleague Robert Mays got a nosebleed on the final drive. But once it was clear that Brady’s pass fell to the turf, the tens of thousands of Philadelphians started to scream and jump and hug. Time started again, and you got the feeling that countless people in the stands would come to mark the rest of their lives as before this moment and after it. All of the frustrations — Andy Reid’s coaching brilliance being marred by his poor time management, the Chip Kelly era floundering, Rich Kotite in general, among others too numerous to list even on the internet — are over for Eagles fans. Parents hugged their children. Friends hugged friends. Strangers hugged strangers.

If you wanted to explain football to someone from another planet, you’d have brought them to this game. And if an alien wanted to learn about narrative arc, you would’ve brought them here, too. If you were to build the perfect game from scratch to create the most cinematic three hours possible, it wouldn’t just end with Tom Brady getting the ball with two minutes; that’d be trite. No, for dramatic effect, you’d have him get the ball again after the Eagles defense forced a dramatic turnover but couldn’t gain a first down and settled for a field goal with 1:05 left. You’d have Brady throw for 505 yards and three touchdowns and zero interceptions. You’d have a New England Patriots team better than anyone in the history of the game at understanding situational football playing in crunch time. They’d overcome a double-digit deficit in the second half because they always do. And then you’d have the Eagles and Nick Foles overcome all of it. You’d have Brady become the first player in NFL history — regular or postseason — with 500 passing yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions … and a loss. You’d have Foles — the guy who took over in December when an injury felled then-presumptive MVP Carson Wentz — be teary-eyed as he accepted the Super Bowl MVP award, and pause because of pure emotion between every few words as he talked about the city of Philadelphia and the “people who bleed green.”

This was a triumph for a city. It was a triumph for a player who everyone had assumed could not do it. It was a triumph for solid team-building, great play-calling, and prepared coaching. But above all else, it was a victory for football.

The old saying in boxing is that styles make fights, and this was one of the best fights I’ve seen. The defenses were bad, and though we all love the idea of good defense, no one actually wants to see it. There was more than 1,100 total offensive yards — the most in any game in NFL history. As I’ve written before: Five years ago, Andy Reid told me that since the college game is about five years ahead of the pro game, the offensive explosion already commonplace in college would come to the NFL in a half decade. He was right. We just watched the future.

The first thing anyone will remember about this game is that it was the Eagles’ first Super Bowl win. The second thing is that Foles brought them there. The indelible images are plentiful — Brady on the ground, looking up in an effort to process Brandon Graham’s strip sack, which gave the Eagles the ball back with 2:09 left in the game — but nothing says more about the Eagles and how they got there than Foles’s touchdown reception from tight end Trey Burton with 34 seconds left in the first half.

As Doug Pederson explained after the game, the play is — honest to God — called “Philly special,” and he mentioned borrowing it from the collegiate ranks. (It is not dissimilar to a play Oklahoma ran in the Rose Bowl last month.) Few teams are more open-minded about ripping off the college game than the Eagles — no doubt because of Pederson’s tenure under Reid in Kansas City. It was also a fourth-down play, and the analytically inclined Eagles converted more fourth downs than any other team in the NFL this season. “Let’s just run it,” Foles told Pederson in the most casual way. More importantly, they didn’t have the play in their playbook until the start of the postseason, when they used the bye week as a mini training camp to get Foles up to speed and get him playing like a low-grade version of Wentz — efficient on every throw, reliable on third down and in the red zone, and comfortable all the time. Many of the same principles the coaching staff imparted on Wentz they also imparted on Foles. They stress throwing to the back of the end zone because it’s the least-defended part of the field, and Philly scored two touchdowns there Sunday. This was a victory for keeping the faith.

Walking around the tunnels after the game, the Eagles were themselves: confident and calm. This was not a mega-upset to them. Alshon Jeffery was asked about his incredible catch in the back of the end zone in the first half, and he said, “He just threw it up and gave me a chance and I made a hell of a play.” It’s not bragging if it’s so true. Every team pretends to have confidence in the face of criticism, and these Eagles truly had it, as they confirmed late Sunday night.

The game felt like a convergence of dozens of threads woven together. Foles ran the pass-to-the-QB play in high school. He, of course, almost retired two years ago. His career has included a record year under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia in 2013, a trade after the 2014 season, a downhill trek toward backup status in the ensuing seasons, and finally, the past two months.

Despite the shocking nature of this playoff run, this Eagles team seems built for long-term success. This was the Howie Roseman season and the Doug Pederson game. Roseman built the deepest roster in football. He understood the salary cap better than the vast majority of the league, signed all his biggest homegrown contributors to deals before they hit the open market, and understood that bringing in outsiders like Timmy Jernigan via trade would add cost-controlled bargains to the roster as they play out their rookie contracts before their extensions kick in. Jeffery was an inspired free-agency addition at $9.5 million guaranteed for one year before his extension in December. Committing $7 million guaranteed to Foles made him expensive for a backup quarterback. But the salary cap rises $10 million a year, and Foles just won the damn Super Bowl.

As for Pederson, the second-year coach called a magnificent game. The Eagles converted 63 percent of their third downs, completed 29 of their 44 pass attempts, and went 2-of-2 on fourth down. Foles masterfully ran RPOs and play-action. The 21 play-action passes Foles threw were the most in Super Bowl history. He was awesome on them; he was awesome at everything. “He’s amazing,” tight end Zach Ertz said. The 27-year-old tight end caught the winning touchdown with an athletic leap toward the goal line and hauled in seven of the nine passes thrown his way. The Eagles decided to surround Wentz with offensive talent; that’s why they signed Jeffery and prioritized their skill guys like Ertz. They did such a good job of it that it worked for a quarterback with less talent, too.

Over the summer, my fiancée and I were standing on a sidewalk in Los Angeles when a car jumped the curb after clipping another car and walloped the two of us at near-full speed. We were thrown in the air, the car hit a pole — though the engine and wheels did not stop — and we landed on the sidewalk, not particularly close to where we had started. We ran a few dozen feet down the sidewalk to make sure the car didn’t hit us again, and then we stopped. If you’ve never had a moment in which your life is threatened, here’s what happens: Your only thought — if you have one — is an uninterrupted series of I’m alive I’m alive I’m alive because you’re trying to convince yourself that it’s true.

Our physical injuries are not nearly as bad as they could’ve been, and I have a cool scar on my arm from shrapnel that came off the car. An accident like this, and the time spent recovering, gives you a lot of time to think about everything. I spent a big chunk of time thinking about football and whether I’d cover it again this year and why I even loved covering it so much to begin with. That’s less an indictment of football and more a byproduct of the copious amount of free time you have when you’re recovering from an injury. But the thing I kept thinking about — and what brought me back — was the previous year’s Super Bowl, New England’s 25-point second-half comeback, yelping with Mays in the press box as it happened, and how football, at its best, is just about the most exciting thing on the planet. It can be a remarkably dumb sport. It can be gruesome, poorly run, poorly officiated, and frustrating. We saw it all this year: The quality of play was down. The injury rate was up. The league cannot get out of its own way politically. And yet everyone keeps coming back because of games like this. Because of Brady’s pass flying 55 yards and falling down. Because of 53 Eagles piling on each other in victory and an entire city doing the same thing a thousand miles away. Because of the guy who wanted to quit beating Tom Brady. Because it’s the same game we’ve been watching forever, and it never stops finding new ways to shock us. Football is king because of these nights. I was glad I was there.