MINNEAPOLIS – All night the Eagles defense had been stampeded by the Patriots offensive herd, or, to be more accurate, by the lone GOAT that is New England’s quarterback.
But up by five points with just over two minutes to play in a spectacular Super Bowl LII, and with no good option but to stop Tom Brady for a first time in the game, an Eagles defense that had all but disappeared conjured the miracle this franchise has waited decades for.
Brandon Graham, who like the rest of his linemates hadn’t laid a glove on Brady in the previous 57-plus minutes, stripped the quarterback. When the ball bounced up and into Derek Barnett’s hands, the Eagles had short-circuited what 67,612 spectators in US Bank Stadium expected to be another championship-winning drive by the Pats’ 40-year-old QB.
Soon, after a Jake Elliott field goal and one final New England scare, the Eagles at last had their Super Bowl, a 41-33 triumph in a game where entertainment replaced defense.
“That was so sweet,” Barnett said afterward. “I know we hadn’t done anything all game on defense, but we were sure someone was going to do something when we needed it. And this time it was BG who made the play.”
How much the Eagles defenders were to blame for maybe their worst performance in a championship season and, yardage-wise at least, the worst in Super Bowl history, is difficult to assess. Brady is like the Minnesota cold. Teams can brace themselves for him, layer on extra protection. But there’s virtually no way to stop the icy sting.
“We had a plan, but missed a lot of things, a lot of little things, all game,” said Malcolm Jenkins. “We just couldn’t get it together. It’s tough when you’re doing that and the guy you’re going against is Tom Brady. But at the end there, we knew he had to pass. So we really went after him and Brandon made the play this time.”
For most of Super Bowl LII, the Eagles, utilizing a four-man rush, couldn’t reach Brady. With no discernible pass rush, and against a Philadelphia secondary that frequently seemed perplexed, Brady threw for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards, plus three touchdowns. His Patriots, whose 613 total yards set another Super Bowl standard, never had to punt.
“Nobody panicked,” said Fletcher Cox. “During the whole game, nobody panicked. We knew what we had to do to stop him. We knew that it would come down to a couple of plays. Guys always step up and make plays.”
What was so surprising about their performance on the game’s biggest stage is that the Eagles defense, arguably, had been carrying the team the last month. It had held their last four opponents — including Minnesota and Atlanta in the postseason — to 10 or fewer points. The unit had ended the regular season as the league’s fourth best defense, both in points allowed and yards-per-game.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy on defense with just the four of us going after Brady, but you really have to leave seven guys back there against him,” said Graham, dressed in an Eagles Super Bowl Champions T-shirt and holding his toddler daughter on his lap.
Some of their struggles, of course, could be attributed to Brady’s well-practiced precision. Some was because, until the pivotal fumble, the Eagles pass-rush never hit or sacked him. Some of it, especially in the first half, was the Patriots’ hurry-up offense, which negated one of Philadelphia’s strengths, the defensive-line depth that allows for constant substitution.
Asked why he didn’t go to the hurry-up as often in the second half, Brady pointed out what should have been obvious.
“We were pretty effective tonight,” he understated. “Just didn’t score more points than the other team.”
And some of the ineffectiveness was due to a zone scheme they eventually abandoned and which Brady picked apart, and to simple sloppiness, like all those missed tackles on James White’s 26-yard scoring run, which gave New England an important TD late in the half.
“The defense didn’t have one of its better games — but we knew when a play had to be made, someone would make it,” said Chris Long. “That’s the way this team has been all year. We lost so many key players this year, but we knew that if everyone just did their job we’d be fine.”
The Patriots had kept the Eagles off Brady by double-teaming Graham and Cox much of the night. But on the play that redeemed Philadelphia’s defense and likely saved this historic victory, Graham found himself one-on-one with guard Joe Thuney.
“He likes to be aggressive,” said Graham. “On that play, I faked like I was going to pull. Then when I got in there I reached out and hit Brady’s right arm.”