The Season of the Improbable continued Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field when the Eagles won the NFC championship by humiliating a Minnesota defense that was statistically the best in the league and darn proud of it.
Put that on the didn’t-see-it-coming list, along with achieving a 13-3 record during the regular season in the first place, surviving multiple injuries to key players including the MVP-candidate quarterback, winning a playoff game against a hot Atlanta team with Nick Foles at the helm, and single-handedly depleting the nation’s supply of rubber dog masks.
None of that easy.
But it was all child’s play compared to what the Eagles did on Sunday night as they advanced to their third Super Bowl appearance and a chance to win their first NFL championship since the final month of the Eisenhower administration.
It was an accepted truth that if the Eagles were to win, it would have to be in rugged, low-scoring fashion. The two defenses were expected to turn the game into a field-position battle as the backup quarterbacks, Foles and Case Keenum, plinked about the field and did what they could with limited opportunity.
Well, so much for the expected, or the probable. We have been transported into the land of the unexpected, where a largely immobile backup can have a career day that, for sheer degree of difficulty, was better than the time in 2013 when he threw for seven touchdowns against a disinterested Oakland defense. Add in the notion that Doug Pederson, discounted as a top contender to be a head coach, has emerged as something of a football savant, earthy enough to reach the players, sharp enough to scheme them into conference champions.
Take the meaning of Sunday’s win a step further, add up the things that couldn’t be predicted along the way, and then put the New England Patriots, the NFL’s version of the Death Star, in front of them in the Super Bowl. Is winning that game any less likely than what has transpired so far? If this is to be the Season of the Improbable, what more fitting ending could there be?
It has been 13 years since the Eagles and Patriots met for the championship in Jacksonville, and a lot of gack has hit the turf between then and now. The Eagles slid, regathered, slid again and have finally arisen despite the difficulties put in front of them. The Patriots, meanwhile, have been to four Super Bowls in the interim and won two more championships. There’s no doubt they expect to add another Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.
They should take note that expectations in the other conference aren’t holding up so well.
If there was a tipoff that the Vikings’ defense, which was ranked No. 1 this season, was vulnerable, it should have come in the second half of their previous playoff game when they gave up 24 second-half points at home to the Saints. The caveat for those who hoped that trend would keep up for the Eagles was that Drew Brees was the quarterback for the Saints and no one ever confused Brees with Foles – even though they did attend the same high school.
And when the Eagles – already down 7-0! – stumbled on their first possession as Foles underthrew a long pass to a wide-open Torrey Smith, there was a grumbling undercurrent that went through the stands.
in the NFC championship game
The Eagles evened up the game on the next possession with Patrick Robinson’s interception return, but after that, it was Foles who did the things he wasn’t supposed to be able to do. Doug Pederson made the calls, and the line provided the protection, and everyone did his job, but it was Foles who did even more than that.
He led them on 75-yard drive to a touchdown that featured a third-and-10 conversion. He withstood a rush that brushed across his throwing arm and stepped up and found Alshon Jeffery with a bomb for another touchdown. He went fast on occasion. He stood still and waited on occasion. Almost nothing was the wrong thing and the Eagles led 24-7 at the half with a pass-to-run imbalance of 23-9 that would not have seemed sustainable before the game.
Midway through the final period, the lead was 38-7 and the crowd had gone from nervous to frenzied to exhilarated before settling into a comfortable, if still loud, peace with the outcome of the evening. They didn’t expect this, either, but it was just fine.
So, sure. Make it the Patriots. For Foles, this has somehow become a season in which his career has gone full circle, back to the Eagles who drafted him, back to a starting role, and back to when people believed he could be more than a 6-foot-5 guy in a baseball cap on the sideline.
Why shouldn’t it be a full-circle season for the franchise as well? It has taken the Eagles back to the Super Bowl, and back to the Patriots, and within sight once again of a horizon that is rarely glimpsed and never reached.
For some reason, that horizon always seemed too far away, and it did this season as well. What we know now is that doesn’t matter.