The footage that emerged from the aftermath looked like a Hunter S. Thompson home video, a football player in full uniform doing interviews in a German shepherd mask, a middle-aged billionaire either dancing or having a seizure or both. A divisional playoff game ended and a fever dream broke out, and all an outsider could do was step back and marvel at the spectacle.
“Just keep on disrespecting and we’re going to keep proving people wrong,” wide receiver Alshon Jeffery said as he stood at his locker after the Eagles’ 15-10 win over the Falcons on Saturday night. “We just believe in one another, we don’t care what anybody else says. We’re just going to keep believing in one another and just keep fighting.”
It has been five weeks now since the Eagles’ season took its turn for the worse, and all they’ve done since is give us reason to join them in belief.
There is an identity to this team, and there is credible reason to think that such a thing can matter this year. While gumption alone can’t make up for significant deficits in talent or scheme, games between evenly matched teams are more often than not won at the margins. Sometimes all it takes is an extra 5 percent on this or that play, and the Eagles’ play all season has suggested the presence of some secret metaphysical sauce. We’re not talking about some sort of grand universal design that might be in play, just an energy that athletes can cultivate, harness and deploy on a granular level during a game.
Go back to that final defensive play on Saturday, when the Falcons broke the huddle and everybody on the defensive side of the ball knew exactly what had been called. Play-calling is something of a chess match, sure, and everybody seems to agree that the Eagles got the better of it on both sides of the ball throughout their win. But there is also more than a little bit of see-ball, hit-ball involved. You might know the heater is coming, but you still have to hit it. So even though Jalen Mills knew the spot he needed to defend and the technique he needed to use, all that knowledge still left him needing to execute and make a play.
As the replay of Matt Ryan’s desperate heave shows, the difference between triumph and defeat was no more than a couple of inches, or a few tenths of a second, the kind of margin for which the science of probability is still no match. In tight spaces like that, the tipping point can easily come in the form of decibels, or Fahrenheit degrees, or stamina, or focus, or any of a number of other of variables whose value diminishes over a larger scale.
Maybe it’s best if we just call it confidence, and leave it at that.
What remains to be seen is how much of that energy the Eagles can recapture over this next week. The doubts from those on the outside never stemmed from their ability to win a single playoff game. They stemmed from the reality that, to win a Super Bowl, a team must win three.
One question that always surrounds an underdog involves the emotion it tends to expend of the course of a single victory. The aftermath of the win over the Falcons featured an awful lot of chest-thumping for a team that still stood short of its goal. The dog masks, the dancing, the denunciations of the haters. Well-deserved? Absolutely. Enjoyable? No doubt.
But if it was cathartic, then that could be a problem, because the Eagles should still be building toward that. At times, Saturday’s postgame celebration had the feel of a victory lap.
“All these guys that think they know everything typically don’t,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “I’m proud of this team. We definitely heard about it all week, that we were the first No. 1 seed ever to be underdogs in Week 2 of the playoffs, so, it is what it is. We are so proud of the 53 guys we have in this locker room, the practice-squad guys, the guys that went on IR. I mean, you could have a freaking Pro Bowl team with the guys on IR. So, that’s a testament to the guys that we have right now.”
Those of us on the outside will do our best to restock their supply of motivational feed. It would’ve have helped us immensely had the Saints managed to hold on to what looked to be a wild come-from-behind win. Instead, the Eagles now find themselves squaring off against a team with its own unique brand of energy and its own form of the disrespect card to play. The Vikings might not go off as an underdog, but you couldn’t blame them for feeling like one after their injury-plagued season and miraculous finish against the Saints.
Some early lines out of Vegas had Minnesota as a three or 3.5-point favorite, which would make the Eagles just the seventh home underdog in a championship game since the start of the 1998 season (according to data archived by Pro Football Reference).
While underdogs are just 11-23 in conference championship games since 2000, the home ‘dogs are 3-3, including the 2008 Cardinals team that beat the Eagles as a 3.5-point ‘dog to advance to Super Bowl XLIII. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. As far as they are concerned, it’s made out of glass. Now, we’ll see whether it fits.