Three months ago, Jay Ajayi was slogging though an up-and-down sophomore season with the Miami Dolphins. Now he is one game away from playing in the Super Bowl with the Eagles, as they prepare for Sunday’s NFC championship matchup with the visiting Minnesota Vikings.
“For me personally, it hasn’t really hit that we have two games left [at the most],” the running back said Thursday. “It still feels like just the regular season, we’ve been in just the routine of everything.
“It definitely will be exciting to go out there on Sunday night and just enjoy that atmosphere, that environment at the Linc, which is going to be amazing. Getting ready to play the biggest game of my career so far, it’s exciting. I know we’re all just ready, because we’re so close [to winning it all]. It’d definitely be a shame not to get it done. Definitely excited for the opportunity.”
Ajayi recalled his early weeks as an Eagle, learning a new offense and a new locker room in midseason, as “hectic … like a whirlwind.”
“I was lucky enough I got to play before that bye [the Nov. 5 game vs. Denver] — that helped,” said Ajayi, who gained 77 yards on just eight carries in his debut. “Being able to execute and play a good game that game also helped. Having these teammates, having an a open locker room, great coaches, great vets, just be open to me, that helped, as well.
“The fans, walking around town, when I was finding my [place to live] and everything, they were really cool, giving me a lot of love my first week here … It made me feel welcome.”
Ajayi has been able to transplant much of his life from South Florida to South Philly, with one notable exception. He still flies his hair stylist up from Miami about every two weeks to tend to his blond-dappled dreadlocks.
Ajayi managed the longest pass play gain of Saturday’s divisional-round victory over Atlanta, 32 yards with a Nick Foles screen. His 54 yards on 15 carries led Eagles rushers, though he, like the rest of the running game, was effectively stifled after halftime (Ajayi carried seven times for four yards). This week, Ajayi and the other running backs face a Minnesota defense that ranked second only to the Eagles in stopping the run this season.
“I think they’re just a good defense altogether,” Ajayi said. “They do a lot of things well, have a really good front seven. … It’s going to be a physical game. We know it’s going to be a dogfight.”
Ajayi ran well early against Atlanta, after fumbling on his first carry, then sat pretty much the entire second quarter in favor of LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. Thursday, Ajayi reiterated what he and coaches said after the game – that the strange interlude was “just how the game went.” Ajayi credited Falcons adjustments with his lack of productivity the rest of the way.
The difference in the postseason, Ajayi said, is “extreme intensity.”
“The little things build up in the game, it seems, a lot more than in the regular season,” he said. “The little details in the first quarter, they can come back in the fourth quarter, so you just want to make sure you execute, and with situational football as well, it becomes bigger as well – third downs, red zones. All those little situational kind of mini-games that happen in a game, they become heightened.”
Blocking the Vikings’ celebrated A-gap blitzes will be as important Sunday as gaining yards on the ground for Eagles backs.
“We’re going to need to be keyed in with our eyes,” he said.
Ajayi said his father, Ibi, and his mother, Kemi, are coming in for the game, as are other family members, but they know their visit isn’t his focus.
“My family kind of already know not to give me too much drama right now, because they understand how big of a time it is, as well … It’s about knocking out those distractions and hunkering down for the next few weeks.”
The Atlanta game was Ajayi’s eighth outing in an Eagles uniform, one more game than he played this season with the Dolphins. It was the fifth game in a row he has been on the field for more than 40 percent of the offensive snaps, against a backdrop of most observers expecting that the Eagles will let Blount walk in free agency this offseason, the team planning for an expanded Ajayi role. A year ago, he was getting ready to play in the Pro Bowl as a Miami second-year success story.
“I haven’t really taken any reflection time yet,” Ajayi said. “It’s still so close. I don’t want to look back yet, because I’m not done, and we’re not done. It’s just about staying on course with what we want to do, take care of business this weekend and put ourselves in that Super Bowl and bring it back to Philly. That’s the mindset. After that, then I can look back and enjoy all the craziness that went on this year, and perhaps [have] something to be proud of.”