The biggest, loudest sports party that Philadelphia had thrown in nearly a decade looked and sounded like this Sunday night: people wearing green shirts and dog masks screaming and whooping until their lungs burned and the building shook, a journeyman defensive back intercepting a pass and weaving from one side of the field to the other before slipping into the end zone and dashing down a tunnel, a head coach calling daring plays without fear against the best defense in the National Football League, a backup quarterback flinging deep passes to wide-open receivers and threading passes to less-open ones, a city that has never celebrated a Super Bowl victory now alive and thrumming with what might yet be.
Let’s get the barest of facts out of the way first, because the rest of the night requires more thought, and perhaps a good stiff drink, to process. The Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings, 38-7, at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday in the NFC championship game. On Feb. 4, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, they will play the New England Patriots – the sport’s preeminent dynasty of the 21st century, with the sport’s preeminent coach, Bill Belichick, and the sport’s preeminent quarterback, Tom Brady – in Super Bowl LII. This is just the third time that the Eagles have reached the Super Bowl and the first time since 2005, when they lost to … the Patriots. They have never won one.
OK, now on to the most joyful night for this mostly forlorn franchise and its loyal fan base since … when? Since January 2005, when the Eagles finally won an NFC championship game after losing each of the previous three years? There was joy then, yes, but it was cut with relief. Since January 1981, that upset of the hated Dallas Cowboys on an ungodly cold afternoon at Veterans Stadium? There was apprehension for much of that game, too; the game was tied at halftime, the outcome still uncertain. This was different. Once Patrick Robinson tied the score at 7 in the first quarter with his electrifying 50-yard interception-return touchdown – one of three turnovers that the Eagles forced, in a virtuoso performance – the tide of the game shifted in their favor and never shifted back. The Eagles didn’t allow it.
Doug Pederson, the head coach whom the Eagles had all but settled on two years ago, was two steps ahead of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer all game. Instead of relying on a conservative game plan, Pederson called plays as if Carson Wentz had not torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last month, as if he were still the Eagles’ quarterback and not Nick Foles. Pederson had Foles throw early, often, and down the field, and when Foles did, he often found his receivers – Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Zach Ertz – without a Vikings player near them. A 53-yard touchdown pass to Jeffery late in the first half was particularly stunning. Jeffery might as well have been an outfielder camping under a lazy fly ball. A 41-yard strike to Smith early in the third quarter, on a flea flicker, was a testament to Pederson’s confidence, to Foles’, to the entire team’s.
“The message is still the same: Go be Nick,” Pederson had said Friday. “Feed off of last week, obviously. Different set of challenges, different team, different defense and all that. Don’t have to force anything. Just let the offense work for you, and he’ll be fine.”
in the NFC championship game
Foles had been solid last week in the Eagles’ divisional-round victory over the Atlanta Falcons, but he was spectacular Sunday night, completing 26 of his 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns. Beyond the mere statistics, though, he played with a comfort that belied the manner in which he had performed in the regular season’s final two games. He had appeared unsure of himself then, tentative when he threw. It was natural to believe that, because Wentz was on his way to being named the league’s most valuable player, because Wentz was so breathtaking and important a player, the Eagles wouldn’t just be vulnerable without him – they would be a sickly approximation of the team they had been with him. Somehow, though, Wentz’s injury fortified them, Foles most of all. He played the best game of his NFL career Sunday night, and he once threw a league-record seven touchdown passes in a game.
“Obviously, we all hurt for Carson,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said before Sunday’s game. “It’s a huge blow to the team, but in no way does it change our goals. No way does it change our demeanor, which [is] we’re going to do our work. Nothing’s changed.”
Nothing had, other than everything. Mike Trout – a Millville, N.J., native; the starting centerfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; the best player in Major League Baseball – stood in the stands behind one end zone and donned a dog mask, too, a rallying cry that the Eagles’ players embraced, a symbol of the team’s underdog status. Players jumped up and down and danced in an impromptu mosh pit along their sideline. Fans chanted, “WE WANT BRADY!” In a luxury suite high in the stadium, former 76ers star Charles Barkley hugged Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. After the clock had melted to 0:00, the sound system blasted McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” and no one in the place left, except the Vikings.
The party had begun and would rage into the night in the city and around it. It will last for another two weeks, until 6:30 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, Feb. 4. That’s the scheduled time for kickoff in the Super Bowl. By then, the Eagles and everyone who follows them will be convinced that all things are possible. Maybe, with this team, all things really are.