Like a mudslide charging down a Smoky Mountain slope, Derek Barnett barreled into the Vikings’ backfield, intent on destruction. He quickly realized his intentions and changed the game.
The Minister of Defense looked down, and smiled.
Barnett broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee in 2016. A few months later, the Eagles drafted Barnett with their first-round pick even though they already had two well-paid defensive ends they knew would start. They just couldn’t pass on talent like Barnett’s.
That sort of talent that peppers the Eagles’ defensive roster. It is built around Fletcher Cox, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro defensive tackle playing at the height of his powers, and it’s run by Jim Schwartz, a swaggering savant, but the genius of the defense lies in its completeness.
Malcolm Jenkins anchors the defensive backfield. Nigel Bradham has enjoyed a career season at linebacker. But the line is where they Eagles spent their money and their picks: Brandon Graham, Tim Jernigan, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, and, of course, Barnett.
As promised, the NFC championship game featured the best defense in the NFL, but that defense was supposed to be wearing purple, not green. For the record, the purple defense gave up 31 of the points the Eagles scored. The green defense scored seven itself, and allowed only seven.
That accounts for all of the scoring in the Eagles’ 38-7 win, which sent them to the Super Bowl for just the third time. It will be their second trip in 13 years and their second consecutive trip against the Patriots and Tom Brady, but this time they won’t face spy cams.
The defense sacked Keenum just the once, but they hit him and harried him and made him run for his life. Schwartz blitzed and disguised coverages and used his tools like a master craftsman. Keenum threw two interceptions and finished 28 for 48 with 271 yards, but a 63.8 passer rating. He was at 98.3 in the regular season.
He didn’t face Barnett & Co. during the regular season.
Barnett came off the line of scrimmage so fast that tight end David Morgan, who crossed from the right side, had no chance. Desperately, Morgan dived to block Barnett, but he only got a piece of Barnett’s left knee, and Barnett’s balance is too good for that to matter. Barnett was long gone, and almost home.
He arrived two steps later, and strip-sacked Case Keenum before Keenum’s receivers even hit their breaks. Long, appropriately, recovered.
Barnett had five sacks this season, and he played well as a rookie, but this was Barnett’s first full sack since before Thanksgiving. The importance of the moment cannot be overstated.
The Vikings trailed, 14-7, but they were near to finishing off a second long drive. The first one, on their first possession, ended in a touchdown. This one was at third-and-5 on the Eagles’ 16, with 3 minutes, 25 seconds to play in the half. It appeared they would cut the lead to four points, if not zero.
As it turned out, the lead grew.
Nick Foles continued his out-of-body experience and led the Eagles to a touchdown, and a 21-7 lead. The defense held again, quickly, and another big pass from Foles set up a last-second field goal for a 24-7 halftime lead. Everyone in Philadelphia who owned a dog mask knew their beloved underdogs would be playing on Feb. 4. By the end of the halftime intermission, most of the nonstop flights to Minneapolis, site of Super Bowl LII, were sold out. The game was, essentially, over.
The orgy of offensive execution continued, and that inflated the score and overshadowed the D, but the Eagles would probably be on vacation without the dominance of their defense. It stole the momentum from the Vikings, and it got them on the board.
“It’s a great group,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Probably not given enough credit.”
The Vikings’ second possession ended when Long, a backup like Barnett, hit Keenum in the chest with his right hand, which he dragged under Keenum’s armpit as he threw. That turned a pass into a drunken duck, which Patrick Robinson intercepted at the 50. He ran it all the way back, aided by Ronald Darby’s open-field block.
“I was trying to score, trying to give the team a spark,” Robinson said.
Barnett said he was “trying to make a play.” He knew it “was big at that moment.”
The Birds scored again to start the second half, and that simplified matters for the defense. The Vikings reached the Eagles’ 7 midway through the third, but, trailing by 24 points, they had to go for it on fourth down. They failed then, and they failed twice more.
Most teams failed against this defense.
If it forces one more failure, it will live as legend.