MINNEAPOLIS – The Super Bowl, that annual national party dedicated to chicken wings and football teams enjoying magical seasons, has been unceremoniously crashed this year by the Eagles, who advanced to Sunday’s NFL championship game despite misfortune that should have derailed them several times.
The 2017 season, at least judging by the injury report, was more cursed than magical, bringing with it a litany of fallen stars that culminated with the loss of young quarterback Carson Wentz in December. Nice try, but better luck next year.
It figures, however, for a team that won its last league title in 1960 and builds the expectations of its fans with each passing year, that the next championship might arrive in a season when all but the most optimistic hopes had been extinguished.
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“It would mean everything to win, no matter what,” owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “But to win this way, I just think it would be a great message to the world that it’s not always on paper. You can overcome so much and succeed in life. This is the most resilient group of human beings I’ve ever watched or been a part of.”
For a city that often revels in its reputation as a gritty underdog that can still overachieve – the hoary narrative of Rocky and a hundred other civic tropes – this might be the unlikely team that figuratively climbs the museum steps to its first title since the final month of the Eisenhower administration.
If the Eagles can pull it off, the win will also come against an opponent perfect for the role of the evil, nearly invincible favorite, and a foe that reinforces the city’s recurring vision of itself as an East Coast mongrel among a string of thoroughbred neighbors. It is one thing to be stuck between the power of Washington and the sheer might of New York City, but how can blue-collar Philadelphia hope to compete with the starched and erudite Athens of America? Boston’s football representative, the New England Patriots, is based in the hinterland 30 miles south of that city, but, particularly in the team’s current incarnation, it still carries with it the whiff of Beacon Hill snobbery.
The Patriots have earned their self-satisfaction, though. They have won five Super Bowls beginning with the 2001 season and are trying on Sunday to win their third in the last four years. All five titles in the remarkable run came with the combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, who are arguably the best coach and the best quarterback in league history. If that seems like an unfair advantage, it’s fitting for a franchise that has a documented history seeking competitive advantages that fall somewhere between gamesmanship and outright cheating, depending on one’s affiliations.
Against that formidable edifice, the Eagles are led by a head coach, a former career second-stringer who was dismissed as a strategic lightweight; a quarterback who washed out once and is only a temporary starter; and even an owner who failed more than 20 years ago to buy the Patriots, his boyhood team, and had to settle for the Eagles a year later. If that’s not a fable that could be told under the El as a Philadelphia bedtime story, what is?
“They say you can’t do something, [and] you rise up and do something,” coach Doug Pederson said. “To come to a city that sort of embraces that role a little bit and to rise up and lead a group of guys that have had a lot of adversity thrown in their face, that’s kind of what draws you to this.”
Nick Foles, the substitute quarterback, was drafted by former coach Andy Reid and played three seasons for the Eagles before being traded away. He lost the starting job in St. Louis with a disastrous showing and contemplated retiring at the age of 27. Instead, Reid persuaded Foles to sign with Kansas City for a season as a backup, and, this season, he returned to the Eagles to mentor Wentz and provide a fill-in if the unthinkable happened.
“Any time you step in for a guy, it’s a tough situation, because you never want to see anyone get injured,” Foles said. “But to be in this moment is unreal. It’s been a crazy year, and just to be here is unbelievable.”
Yes, it is, but Foles was able to navigate the Eagles through a difficult 15-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons in their first playoff game, and then had the absolute game of his life against the Minnesota Vikings in the 38-7 conference championship win.
He might need to do just as well on Sunday, but the most difficult part of winning the Super Bowl is just getting into the game, and they have already accomplished that. Now the Eagles arrive on this improbable doorstep with a puncher’s chance to capture the Lombardi Trophy after two previous failures.
This much is certain: They’ll throw the punches and take their chances, as they represent a city that prides itself on a reputation for doing the same thing. And sometimes punches land, even if they have been traveling for more than a half-century toward the perfect ending for an imperfect team.