In the days before the NFC championship game, the play that defined the Eagles’ dominant victory – and their entire season, really – had been a point of emphasis at practice, but it had been a clunky approximation of the thing of beauty that finished off the Minnesota Vikings. Again and again, the Eagles had worked on that flea flicker, Nick Foles handing off to a running back, the running back tossing the ball back to Foles, Foles heaving it deep for Torrey Smith, and something was always off.
“It didn’t look particularly good,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.
The poor aesthetic quality of those dress rehearsals, though, did nothing to dissuade Doug Pederson from calling the play on the Eagles’ opening drive of the second half. It went for a 41-yard touchdown, the Eagles’ penultimate score in the 38-7 victory.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever run a flea-flicker,” Foles said that night. “It was my first time, so I just tried not to smile. Any time you’re a quarterback and you can have a play like that, it’s pretty exciting.”
Notice what word Foles didn’t use to describe the flea flicker: surprising. The play’s excellence went beyond Foles’ accurate throw into decent coverage and Smith’s terrific catch. Its true majesty was this: To succeed, it required Foles, the Eagles’ backup quarterback, and Smith, a receiver who at times this season has performed as if he is paid by the drop, to be just about perfect. Pederson knew that, and he called the play anyway, because Pederson has called plays with that combination of confidence and daring all season. It’s who he is. It’s what he does. And it might be the best reason to believe the Eagles can beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the last week about the Patriots’ mystique, and there is no doubt that they possess it. They have won five of the last 16 Super Bowls. They have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and any superlatives used to describe those two often don’t seem superlative enough. They win games that it seems they ought not to be able to win, such as last year’s Super Bowl, against the Atlanta Falcons, last week’s AFC championship game, against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But the question of whether and how that mystique has manifested itself and might manifest itself in this game is what matters.
Here’s how it probably won’t manifest itself: with the Eagles’ overwhelmed by the moment, committing a succession of errors in a Patriots blowout. For one thing, the Eagles haven’t been that sort of team all season, and even amid the hype and pressure of the Super Bowl, it’s difficult to think they’ll morph into that kind of team now. For another, that scenario has never played out in any of the Patriots’ seven Super Bowl appearances during the Brady-Belichick era. All of those games have been close, decided by six points or fewer.
No, here’s what the Patriots’ mystique does and can do: It can force a team to act or react to particular situations differently from how it would against any other opponent. Consider again those two recent comeback victories by the Patriots. Last year’s Falcons reached the Super Bowl and built a 28-3 lead in it because of a Wallenda-style offense: Matt Ryan in an MVP season, great talent at wide receiver and running back, Kyle Shanahan calling brilliantly designed and deployed plays, everything high-flying. But leading 28-9 in the third quarter, the Falcons were conservative on back-to-back possessions. On the first, they called two short passes and a run and went three-and-out. On the second, after a Patriots field goal had made the score 28-12, the Falcons went run-run-pass, a predictable sequence, and Ryan fumbled when he was sacked by Dont’a Hightower. The Patriots recovered, got a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to cut the Falcons’ lead to eight, and by the end, New England’s 34-28 overtime win had the feel of a formality.
Now, that 24-20 victory over Jacksonville. The Jaguars led, 14-10, with 55 seconds left in the first half when they took possession at their 25-yard line. Though he still had two timeouts, though New England’s defense was ranked 29th in the NFL this season, Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone had quarterback Blake Bortles take a knee twice to run out the clock. Against another opponent, perhaps Jacksonville could have afforded to play it so safe. Given the Jaguars’ strong defense and Bortles’ untrustworthiness as a quarterback, safe was Jacksonville’s default approach all season, and it usually worked.
Against the Patriots, though, safe is death, and look what that truth led to: Of Jacksonville’s 32 offensive plays in the second half before the Patriots retook the lead, 17 were passes and 15 were runs. You can imagine the thought bubble above Belichick’s head: After an entire season of trying to minimize Blake Bortles’ influence, you think you’re going to hold us off by relying that much on him? Good luck to you. The Jaguars could no longer play the way they wanted or were accustomed to.
Which brings us to the Eagles’ advantage: They’ve played with the pedal to the metal all season. Remember: The Eagles went for it on fourth down 26 times during the regular season and got a first down 17 times. No team converted on fourth down more often, and only the Green Bay Packers went for it more often (28 times). The Eagles’ conversion percentage, 65.4, was also the third-best mark in the league, a remarkable figure given the frequency of their attempts.
That philosophy drives their offense. It’s part of their collective DNA.
It’s why their head coach called a flea flicker with a backup quarterback who had never run one before, with a receiver with unreliable hands, against the NFL’s best defense in the most important game of the year.
“Our guys didn’t go out there and play with fear,” Foles said. “We wanted to play aggressively.”
It’s the way they’ll have to play this Sunday. It’s the way they can win.