When the playoffs began, pretty much no pundit anywhere thought the Eagles were going to the Super Bowl. The reason was simple: their quarterback was Nick Foles.
Sunday evening, the Eagles advanced to the third Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The reason was simple: their quarterback was Nick Foles.
Actually, there was a bit more to it than that. In parsing the home team's 38-7 NFC championship game dissection of the Minnesota Vikings and their No. 1-ranked defense, it also would be prudent to give credit to the coaches who designed the offense and called the plays that left the Vikings flatfooted and mystified Sunday – head coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich, and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo.
The Vikings were all-time historically good on third down this season – allowing a 25.2 percent conversion rate. The Eagles converted nine of their first 11 Sunday, and their last three touchdowns came on third down – while playing their backup quarterback, as MVP candidate Carson Wentz leaned on a cane on the sideline.
In piling up 456 yards, while not allowing a point after the Vikings' first drive, the Eagles showed us things we hadn't seen before, such as a flea-flicker that worked for a touchdown. They carved up the Vikings with slants and screens. They blocked the pass rush with seeming ease – remember that big Halapoulivaati Vaitai/Everson Griffen mismatch? Whatever happened to Everson Griffen, anyhow? They ran the ball effectively when they needed to – 26 carries, 108 yards and a touchdown.
Basically, they did whatever they wanted.
But the centerpiece was Foles. Not the 4-for-11, 39-yard Foles of the meaningless Dallas game at the end of the regular season, and not even the reasonably solid 23 for 30, 246-yards, no TDs but no turnovers Foles of last week's divisional round victory over Atlanta.
This was the 2013 Foles, the guy with the 27 touchdowns and two picks, the seven-touchdowns-at-Oakland Foles, the Pro Bowl MVP Foles.
He came out in favor of Nate Sudfeld on the final set of kneel-downs, having completed 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards, three touchdowns, no turnovers, for a 141.4 passer rating. Obviously, Wentz is the quarterback again when he recovers, but Foles threw for more yards Sunday than Wentz ever managed this season, and registered a higher passer rating.
"I just told him I was so proud of him and the way he played tonight," Pederson said, when asked what he'd said to Foles on the sideline at the end. "All week he's been calm, he's been confident. He's been energetic. He's everything we knew he was. He's been that way for two weeks, and it's shown on the field."
"No one in the locker room doubted me," Foles said. "Everyone just kept believing. We kept working, we kept getting more reps in practice … It's just a rhythm thing. You just have to keep working."
Foles noted that Pederson, then the Eagles' quarterbacks coach under Andy Reid, was the only coach to come to Texas and work him out privately, before the Eagles drafted him in the third round in 2012. "To win this game for him and this organization is something very special … Doug's an unbelievable play-caller … We have a great staff that works with him to create these game plans, and he does a great job of executing, when to call these things … The attention to detail, they're unbelievable."
His career has been way up and way down since then, Foles contemplating retirement after asking for and getting his release from the Rams early in 2016.
"This has been a crazy journey this year, with what's gone on, all the obstacles, all the injuries," said Foles, who spoke at length with Wentz in the locker room before talking with reporters. "When you look back at the journey, you realize it wasn't always great. There were bumps in the road but you were able to overcome 'em with the people that are around you, that believe in you and love you."
Second Eagles play, Foles served notice that he wasn't trying to sneak into the Super Bowl. His bomb to Torrey Smith fell incomplete, but it was delivered right on the money. Smith was hit by Trae Waynes and couldn't hang on.
That drive died when Foles rolled right, under pressure, and found Trey Burton for a first down at the sideline, but Burton couldn't get both feet down.
Patrick Robinson's circuitous pick-six return of Case Keenum seemed to change everything, on the field and in the stands. Foles took the Eagles on a 12-play, 75 yards touchdown drive, on which he completed each of his four pass attempts. LeGarette Blount scored the TD on an 11-yard blast up the middle, and the Eagles had the lead for good, 14-7.
As the second quarter clock wound down, the Eagles took off again, seven plays, 76 yards, Foles inducing gasps as he stood in on third and 10 and found Alshon Jeffery all alone behind the defense for a 53-yard touchdown.
It got better: the Eagles got the ball back with 29 seconds left in the half, and instead of kneeling like the Jacksonville Jaguars did earlier in the day with a lead in the final minute, they drove 60 yards on four perfectly-run plays, setting up a 38-yard Jake Elliott field goal and a 24-7 Eagles halftime lead.
It was loud in the Linc, and it got louder when the Eagles scored on the first possession of the second half, Foles threading a 41-yarder on that flea-flicker, no less, to Smith on third and 6. It was 31-7 and if dog masks could convey emotion, they would have registered delirious astonishment.
"I don't know that I've ever run a flea-flicker before," Foles said. Teammates said it was in the playbook this week, along with other plays aimed at taking advantage of the Vikings' aggressive defense, with safeties that play way up, but Jay Ajayi was the back in practice who always took the handoff and pitched back to Foles. When Pederson called for it, rookie back Corey Clement was in the game instead.
"I'll do it — I want to be part of a big play, be a part of a play that's going to be shown in endless videos for years to come, on how we got there," Clement said.
"Nick did a great job of stepping up and sliding right," Pederson said. "And then what a finish. What a catch by Torrey, and right in the front corner of the end zone."
Foles did it one more time on third down, finding Jeffery for the final TD from 5 yards out.
"We expected to score points," left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. "We weren't scared of the No. 1 defense … If we play the way we can play, we can put up a lot of points on anyone. I think our offense puts a lot of pressure on people. With how good our run game is, teams want to play that, but if you want to play that, we're really good in play action, really good at throwing the ball. We gave Foles a lot of time, and he did a great job getting the ball to our playmakers. Everything was clicking; it was a lot of fun to be a part of and the crowd was unbelievable. Doing this at home was really special."
The fact that the Eagles won as three-point underdogs wasn't astounding. The fact that they did it with Foles slinging the ball all around the stadium was. He had been terrible with any throw longer than 15 yards, since the Oakland game Christmas night.
"I felt good all week, I felt good coming into the game," Foles said on TV as the green confetti sparkled. He said the overall strength of every Eagles unit made it easy to not be nervous.
"It couldn't happen to a better guy," said Keenum, who took over for Foles with the Rams when Foles was benched lated in the 2015 season. "He's been through so much that a lot of people don't know about. The way he came out and played, it couldn't happen to a better guy … Obviously, this is still hurting a lot right now, but I'm going to be rooting hard for him."
Now, Super Bowl LII looms. Tom Brady and the five-time champion Patriots against … Nick Foles and the Eagles?