Playing in postseason a new experience for many of these Eagles
THE LAST TIME the Eagles won a playoff game, Jim Johnson was their defensive coordinator. He watched his unit dominate in a 23-11 victory over the host Giants from the press box of a Meadowlands stadium that has now been torn down, Johnson frail from the cancer that would claim his life less than 7 months later.
“It was a few years ago,” said tight end Brent Celek, one of six current Eagles who played in that Jan. 11, 2009, game, which sent the Eagles to the NFC title game in Arizona. The other veterans of that playoff run are wideout Jason Avant, right guard Todd Herremans, defensive end Trent Cole, long snapper Jon Dorenbos and wideout DeSean Jackson.
“I don’t remember that far back,” Avant said.
Herremans noted that it has been even longer since the Birds won a playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field, where they will play tomorrow in the wild-card round against the Saints. That would be Jan. 7, 2007, when Jeff Garcia quarterbacked a 23-21 wild-card win over the Giants. Four Eagles remain from that game — Herremans, Avant, Cole and Dorenbos. Donté Stallworth caught a Garcia touchdown pass that day. Nick Foles was in the middle of his senior year at Austin Westlake High. Chip Kelly was still the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire.
In fact, only 14 current Birds were on the roster 3 years ago, when the Eagles last appeared in the postseason, losing to the Packers at Lincoln Financial Field, 21-16, on Jan. 9, 2011.
Playoff games and playoff wins used to be an every-year occurrence here, but not lately. That Garcia win marked the Eagles’ sixth appearance in 7 years, a stretch that included eight victories, six of them at home.
“It’s a great feeling. This is what it used to be,” Cole said. “It’s been a long road ... Chip’s plan came together.”
Quite a few key players in tomorrow’s Eagles lineup — starting with Foles, the quarterback — will be making their postseason debut.
Meanwhile, the Saints have won five playoff games, including Super Bowl XLIV, since the Birds’ last playoff win. Quarterback Drew Brees will be appearing in his 10th career postseason game.
“I don’t know what it feels like to actually play in one,” Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham said. Graham said he watched that loss to the Packers from the stands, having torn his ACL late in the regular season of his rookie campaign. “It’s just going to be a little more turned up, but I’m excited.”
Second-year corner Brandon Boykin said: “We’re gonna have situations where it’s a tight game and you gotta come up big, and we’ve been doing that all year. It’s not like when the playoffs get here, we do anything different.”
Third-year center Jason Kelce also hasn’t played in the postseason, but he said: “You played big games in high school, big games in college. It never ends up being any different.”
Rookie safety Earl Wolff, who hopes to return from a knee injury, said: “A couple of the veterans told me it’s like an even bigger bowl game in college. They said the game is even faster ... the atmosphere is going to be so different from the regular season, you’re going to be able to tell as soon as you run out of the tunnel. Cary Williams [the only Eagle with a Super Bowl ring, from Baltimore last season] said he’s always been to the playoffs, and he says it’s different every time he goes.”
The Eagles approached last week’s game in Dallas as a playoff game, given that their season was over if they lost. They can draw on that experience, and can look forward to a more welcoming crowd this time.
“We were in a playoff game last week. I think the guys realize that the hits are a little bit harder, guys have just a little extra incentive to keep playing,” Avant said.
“I don’t even feel like a rookie anymore, I’ve played so many games,” right tackle Lane Johnson said. “Don’t make it bigger than what it is. We’re still going to be playing 11-on-11 ... Todd [Herremans] said people get tensed up a little, because they know what’s at stake, but that’s normal.”
Johnson said his focus would be more on “one of the best defensive fronts we’ve played this year,” which has gotten the pressure that has allowed the Saints to rank second in the NFL against the pass.
“For young guys, it’s just important for them to know that you can’t take these opportunities for granted,” said left guard Evan Mathis, who was in the postseason with Carolina and Cincinnati, but not as an Eagle. “It’s not often that teams are in the playoffs every single year. When you do get in, you need to make the most of your opportunity.”
Indeed, a year ago, as the NFC East Champion Redskins prepared for their first-round matchup with the Seattle Seahawks, they probably thought they were on the cusp of a new era of opportunity, behind quarterback Robert Griffin III and coach Mike Shanahan. Going 3-13 in 2013 with eight losses in a row to finish the season and a coach firing was not what anyone envisioned.
Three years ago, the Eagles who saw Michael Vick’s end-zone pass for Riley Cooper picked off by Tramon Williams to seal Green Bay’s victory had no idea that was the Pickett’s Charge of the Andy Reid-Vick era. They’d been 10-4 and the talk of the league after Jackson’s walkoff punt return less than a month before. Juan Castillo, the lockout, Nnamdi Asomugha signing here and turning out to be a bust, Jason Peters’ Achilles’ tear — nobody had any idea.
Now, with Kelly in his first season, LeSean McCoy leading the NFL in rushing, and Foles setting records as he approaches his 25th birthday, Jan. 20, the Eagles’ future looks bright, but ...
“I told a lot of young guys, this is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Cole said. “This might be your only chance in your NFL career to be this close, to get a shot at the Super Bowl. The past 2 years weren’t too good, but here we are ... We need to run with it. I think we’ve got the team to do that. Every year’s a new year. You never know what’s going to happen.”
“For the last 3 years, we’ve all thought we were going to get in the playoffs and make a run at it. Now it’s a reality,” Herremans said. “I think we have a good mix of people who have [playoff] experience and guys that are hungry to get there. It’s still football. Everybody on this team knows how to play football, and we’re doing it pretty well.”