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“Fly Eagles, Fly!” is the official fight song for the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League.
After winning the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history last night, we can at least temporarily change those first three words of the song to “Finally Eagles, Finally!”
The Eagles and New England Patriots threw haymakers at one another all night long on Sunday night during Super Bowl LII in Minnesota in a game that was reminiscent of the climactic fight of the film “Rocky II“.
In that epic slugfest, Philly’s favorite fictional underdog fighter, Rocky Balboa, traded big blows with and ultimately defeated a legendary unbeatable champion named Apollo Creed.
Last night it was a real, live legendary champion named Tom Brady who was throwing bombs at the Eagles. For most of the night, Brady found the Birds weak spots, landing punishing shot after punishing shot.
But the Eagles kept taking those shots and answering back with big shots of their own. Leading the way was a man every bit the underdog that the fictional Rocky had been in that film series.
Nick Foles has had big moments as an NFL quarterback before, including in an Eagles uniform. But his career had gone a bit off the rails over the last couple of years to the point where he was ready to retire from the game.
Given another shot at NFL life, Foles was signed by the Eagles for the 2018 season. Brought in to serve as a backup to rising stud Carson Wentz, most Eagles fans thought – in fact hoped – that Foles would never see the field.
As everyone now knows, the unthinkable happened. Wentz led the Eagles to the NFL’s best record and was the leading NFL MVP candidate. But it all seemed to evaporate when Wentz suffered a debilitating knee injury, ending his season in a Week #14 victory in Los Angeles.
In stepped a cold Foles. With no training camp, having taken no game snaps all year long, the 28-year old in his sixth season was suddenly put under center for the NFC’s top team.
It was a no-win situation for Foles. If the Eagles collapsed at that point, blame would all go to the Wentz injury. If they lost at any point in the playoffs, there would always be those who would wonder “what if Carson” had stayed healthy?
In retrospect – if it had to happen at all – the timing of Wentz’ injury could not have been better. His great play had been the biggest key in the Eagles having clinched a playoff berth. He put the team in position to finish as the top overall seed in the NFC playoffs.
That timing allowed Foles to come in and play in two full games and parts of two others before the playoffs would begin. It was just enough time to get him up to game speed and ready to perform once again on the big stage.
Perform he would. Foles threw for 246 yards and managed the game well as the Eagles held off the tough defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons by 15-10 in the Divisional Round.
Taking it up a notch, Foles put on a show in throwing for 352 yards and three touchdowns as the Eagles crushed the Minnesota Vikings dreams of hosting the Super Bowl in their home town with a 38-7 victory in the NFC Championship Game.
That all led to last night, and the battle with Brady and his Patriots. Brady threw for an unreal Super Bowl record 505 yards and three touchdowns.
But for nearly every Brady drive of excellence, Foles had an answer. He threw for 373 yards himself, and matched the great Brady with three touchdown passes of his own.
He also did Brady one better. While Brady dropped a possible TD reception on a second quarter trick play, Foles caught one tossed by tight end Trey Burton. Foles thus became the first player in NFL history to both pass for and catch a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
The game itself was much like those fictional Balboa-Creed battles. Big shots. Back and forth action. When each seemed within a blow of landing a knockout punch, the other would come roaring back to life.
After the two teams traded early field goals, Foles was first to put his team into the end zone when he connected with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery on a 34-yard TD pass with 2:41 to play in the first quarter.
Halfway through the second quarter, former Patriots’ running back LeGarrette Blount bulled his way in from 21 yards away with the help of strong blocking from his teammates to give the Birds a 15-3 lead.
That lead nearly got even bigger. On their next possession from the New England 43-yard line, Foles tried to connect with Jeffery down along the sideline at the eight-yard line.
The receiver nearly made a tremendous one-hand catch. But the ball somehow flipped out of his hand, and popped directly to Duron Harmon for the only interception that Foles would throw in the entirety of this postseason run.
At this point, I was feeling a bit cocky that my pregame 41-10 prediction in favor of the Eagles was going to materialize. I would turn out to be only halfway correct.
Brady became nearly unstoppable for much of the rest of the contest. He started by leading New England on an eight-play, 90-yard drive, aided along by a key defensive holding call. When James White rolled in from 26-yards out, the Pats had cut their deficit to just 15-12.
However, Foles answered right back, leading the Eagles down to the Patriots one-yard line with just :38 seconds remaining in the first half. The key play of the drive was a 55-yard catch and run by rookie RB Corey Clement, who had a tremendous game in all phases.
On fourth-and-one, coach Doug Pederson could have kicked a field goal, putting points on the board for his team as they entered halftime. But Pederson showed all night long that he wasn’t playing it safe. His team was going to play to win.
Pederson called for a schoolyard trick play, and his players ran it to perfection. Clement would find himself right in the middle of things once again.
Foles lined up in the shotgun to take the snap, but then suddenly split out to the right as a receiver. The direct snap went to Clement, who started to his left, then pitched the ball off to backup tight end Trey Burton, who was moving right.
While all this misdirection was happening, Foles had slipped off unseen into the right side of the end zone. Burton threw a perfect strike while on the run to Foles, who cradled the TD reception into his arms. The Eagles thus took a 22-12 lead into the locker room.
After a lengthy halftime break in which Justin Timberlake put on quite a song and dance show, the action continued with Brady remaining hot.
Leading the Patriots on an eight-play, 75-yard drive, Brady found his favorite target on half of those plays. Rob Gronkowski had receptions of 25, 24, and 14 yards. Then he snared a 5-yard TD catch, and just a couple minutes into the second half, it was again a three-point game.
Not to be outdone, Foles again drove the Eagles back right away. An 11-play, 85-yard drive culminated with a 22-yard TD pass to Clement, and the Eagles were back up by 10 again at 29-19.
And then Brady got the ball back, and guess what happened? Yup. Eight-play, 75-yard drive resulting in a 26-yard TD pass to Chris Hogan making it a 29-26 game. That was how the third quarter would end.
Early in the fourth, a 42-yard field goal by Jake Elliott pushed the Eagles lead out to 32-26. That gave Brady the ball back, and he remained unstoppable.
A 10-play, 75-yard drive led to a four-yard pass to Gronkowski for the touchdown. When Stephen Gostkowski booted the extra-point, New England had their first lead of the night at 33-32.
With 9:22 to play, Foles got the ball back, trailing for the first time. On a third and six play from his own 29-yard line he found TE Zach Ertz for seven and a first down. But three plays later, with the clock showing under six minutes to play, the Eagles faced a fourth down.
On fourth and one from their own 45-yard line, Pederson faced another key decision. The odds said to punt, try to pin the Patriots deep, have the defense hold Brady, and get the ball back in better field position.
But as I said earlier, Pederson didn’t come to U.S. Bank Stadium to play it safe. He came to win. And so he rolled the dice again, going for it on fourth down. Foles came through once again. A quick hit to Ertz over the middle resulted in a two-yard gain and another first down.
Seven plays and three more minutes off the clock later, Foles again found Ertz, this time streaking towards the end zone. Foles hit his tight end in stride at the five. Ertz turned up field, took a couple of strides, and dove into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
With just over two minutes remaining and holding a five-point lead, Pederson called for a two-point conversion attempt. For the second time in the game, the Birds failed to convert, and the Eagles held a 38-33 lead.
Brady would get the ball back with one timeout and the two minute warning in his pocket. This was way too much time and opportunity for any Eagles coach, player, or fan to feel anything but uncomfortable.
The Eagles clearly needed someone on the defense to step up with a big play, which really hadn’t happened the entire game. Now, at the biggest moment, that big play would finally come.
Brady began at his own 25, and immediately completed a pass to Gronkowski for an eight-yard gain. It looked to all the world as if he was ready to begin yet another late-game drive to victory.
On second down and two, Brady again dropped back to pass. But this time, the Eagles defense charged through the Patriots line.
Brandon Graham reached Brady, bursting the football from his hands. Derek Barnett pounced on the loose ball, recovering a fumble that now stands as the single most important defensive play in Eagles history.
Foles took over and drove the offense back down the field once more. That drive resulted in key points put up on the scoreboard in the form of a clutch 46-yard field goal from Elliott. The Eagles now had a 41-33 lead. But Brady would get the ball back with just over a minute to play.
On the ensuing kickoff return, Patriots coach Bill Belichik showed that he wasn’t going down without a fight, calling for a reverse. Once again it would be Clement who would come up big, this time on special teams. The first man down field on the kickoff coverage, he disrupted the return enough that the Eagles were able to pin the Patriots deep.
Brady was forced to begin at his own nine-yard line. He had no time outs, and just :58 seconds to drive his team to a touchdown. He would then still need to be successful on a two-point conversion just to force a tie and send the Super Bowl to overtime.
The Eagles defense stiffened, and the pass rush put relentless pressure on him. Three plays later the Patriots faced fourth and ten, still at that nine-yard line. And then Brady tried to miraculously raise his team from the canvas one last time.
Completing passes to his two favorite targets, Danny Amendola and Gronkowski, Brady got the first down and then drove the Patriots out to midfield with nine seconds remaining. There was enough time for one last-gasp ‘Hail Mary’ play.
The plan was for Brady to throw up the ball in the end zone, hoping that the massive Gronkowski could out-leap and out-fight the Eagles defensive backs. That, or have him tip the ball to Amendola or one of the other receivers.
As Brady dropped back to pass, the Eagles put on another strong rush. Graham nearly got him again, but the New England QB slipped away and stepped up for one final heave.
He couldn’t have made a better throw. Brady’s long pass was on the money. The ball came down just inside the end zone, and Gronkowski was right there, leaping to make the catch. However, he was swarmed upon by a gaggle of Eagles defensive backs.
The ball was swatted around, appearing to bounce off two or three players before finally falling harmlessly to the turf. There were no flags, the clock was at 0:00, and the Philadelphia Eagles were finally world champions.
13 years ago, Brady and the Patriots had defeated the Eagles in the Super Bowl. Now in a rematch of sorts, the greatest quarterback in NFL history had done battle with one of the biggest underdogs in NFL history.
Like that showdown fight in “Rocky II“, the underdog had defeated the defending champion.
All of that tells you the story of the game. But it fails to convey the emotion that comes with being a fan of that underdog. I have been such a fan for something like 47 years.
My earliest memories of the Eagles are from the opening of Veteran’s Stadium for the 1971 season. My age peers and I lived through mostly losing teams in those early Vet years with quarterbacks named Pete Liske, John Reaves, Roman Gabriel, and Mike Boryla.
Finally, an energetic young coach named Dick Vermeil arrived, and we began to believe that we could join the NFL’s elite. Though we had many great moments and great players over the next four decades, even reached the Super Bowl twice, we could never claim the ultimate victory.
There were no guarantees that it would ever come either. Just ask fans of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, both with loyal and passionate fan bases.
For 86 years in the Bosox case, and for 108 years in the Cubbies case, generations of fans were born, lived a full life, rooted on their teams for decades, and died never experiencing a World Series victory.
No, there was no guarantee that any of us would ever live to see the Eagles win a Super Bowl. But last night put an end to all of the frustration.
When Graham knocked the ball from Brady’s hands and Barnett recovered it, a realization hit me that I would not allow myself to feel all night. The Eagles were about to win the Super Bowl. Seriously, tears began to well up in my eyes.
Those emotions remained exactly that raw for the next 15 minutes or so of real time, the final two minutes of the game time. Could the Eagles pick up the one more first down that they needed to drive the stake through Brady’s heart? No. Could the defense stop him on fourth down at his own nine, driving that stake through his heart? No.
But could the greatest quarterback in the history of the National Football League pull one final miracle out of his bag? Could he add one more unbelievable last-second play to his personal highlight reel? No as well.
What Vermeil, Ron Jaworski, and Bill Bergey were unable to do, these Eagles finally did. What Buddy Ryan, Randall Cunningham, and Reggie White were never able to do, these Eagles finally did. What Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, and Brian Dawkins were never able to do, these Eagles finally did.
As the Eagles players, coaches, and families began to celebrate on the field nearly a thousand miles away, at my house, with those tears now fully in my eyes, my wife and I embraced. Out on the streets of Philadelphia, tens of thousands poured out onto Broad Street from north to south to celebrate.
The Philadelphia Eagles had finally won the Super Bowl. And like our fictional hero decades ago, they did it as underdogs. It only made the victory that much sweeter.
Team owner Jeffrey Lurie took to the stage to accept the Super Bowl trophy. GM Howie Roseman, for whom this victory must be justifiably ridiculously sweet, took part in the trophy celebration.
Foles was honored as the Super Bowl MVP, joined on stage by his quarterback brother Wentz, who will now hope to one day lead the team back to this moment.
There will be a parade here in Philly on Thursday. Millions are expected. It will be a street party like none this town has ever seen, and with the Flyers of the 1970’s and the 1980 and 2008 Phillies, I’ve seen some pretty big ones.
Finally, Eagles fans, it was our turn to see our heroes on the stage accepting the Lombardi Trophy, green and white confetti pouring down on them. It was our turn to party late into the night. It was our turn to know that championship feeling. Finally, Eagles fans. Finally!