EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – As Nick Foles made the trek from the visitors’ locker room to the team bus, he encountered several dozen Eagles fans who had access inside the lower MetLife Stadium tunnels.
They screamed his name and congratulated the victorious quarterback, even though most were wearing Carson Wentz No. 11 uniforms. No one expects Foles to be Wentz, and for the Eagles to beat the New York Giants on Sunday, he didn’t need to be.
Less-than-Wentz may not be enough when the playoffs arrive. But the first-round bye the Eagles clinched with a 34-29 win over the 2-12 Giants will help. And Foles was low on the list of concerns after the squeaker, after the defense, the defense and, yes, the defense.
“I’m sure there are some things he would like to do over, obviously. Each game is going to be that way,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “But I thought he handled himself extremely well. A lot of poise back there. Took some shots but bounced up.”
In many ways, the offense was the same with Foles. There was some no-huddle. There were run-pass option plays. There was early balance. There was situational success on third down and in the red zone. There was a diversity in the distribution of passes. And Foles even managed to extend a play with a nifty pump fake on Jason Pierre-Paul.
“I channeled my inner Carson Wentz right there,” Foles said, “and just made a play.”
That was about as close as Foles got to matching some of Wentz’s athletic feats. And that was fine against a woeful Giants defense that entered the game last in the NFL in total yards allowed.
But when the Eagles needed Foles to deliver, particularly after they trailed, 20-7, he did. He engineered a near-spotless seven-play, 75-yard opening drive that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery. But the offense stalled on the next three drives, while the defense had no answers for Eli Manning and his no-name receivers.
A Ronald Darby interception and a Kamu Grugier-Hill blocked punt, though, gave the Eagles excellent field position and Foles capitalized on both by tossing touchdown throws to Zach Ertz and Trey Burton.
He may have benefitted from the timely turnovers, but Wentz had his share of short fields. The key has been converting those red-zone giveaways into six points. Overall, the Eagles were four of six inside the 20 with four Foles touchdown passes.
For all the speculation that Pederson would employ run-heavy game plan, he ended up calling 39 pass plays to 26 runs.
“As a play-caller, I didn’t want to take a step back,” Pederson said. “Where I just went, ‘OK, we have to do this, run the ball more.’”
Foles completed 24 of 38 passes for 237 yards. He was sacked once and fumbled, but running back Kenjon Barner recovered and kept Foles from having a single turnover. He had some missed throws, a wrong read here or there, and took a delay-of-game penalty, but Foles effectively managed Pederson’s game plan.
The ball was often out quick. There weren’t many downfield throws. Foles’ two longest completions were on screens – Jay Ajayi for 32 yards and Jeffery for 19. The longest down-the-field throw was to Zach Ertz for 17 yards.
Foles did go deep to Torrey Smith after eluding Pierre-Paul, and that attempt resulted in 32-yard pass interference penalty. But with reserve Chance Warmack at left guard and Halapoulivaati Vaitai still finding his way – Olivier Vernon toasted the left tackle for the Giants’ lone sack – there weren’t as many vertical plays.
“We tailored a couple of things for Nick obviously in the passing game,” Pederson said, “but really I wanted to maintain the aggressiveness.”
Pederson gambled on a second-quarter fourth-and-1 at the Giants’ 44. It was a long yard, though, and without Wentz, who had converted nine previous fourth-and-1 sneaks, LeGarrette Blount got the handoff. He was stopped short. Foles would successfully plunge forward on third-and-1 in the third quarter.
But despite Pederson’s claims, the Eagles were generally conservative. Some of the that had to do with the very nature of the quarterback under center. Foles can’t extend plays like Wentz. But he was able to slide or step up out of the pocket on occasions.
And he maintained the Eagles’ relative success on third down. Wentz was historically accurate on third downs of 10-plus yards (39.6 percent). And while Foles was 0 for 2 in the same circumstances on Sunday, he did convert four third downs over five yards.
There was an 8-yard swing pass to Ajayi, a 10-yard touchdown pass to Trey Burton, a 10-yard completion to Nelson Agholor, and finally, a 15-yard hookup with Ertz in which the tight end side-stepped safety Darian Thompson and ran past the marker.
Foles completed throws to seven different receivers with no one eclipsing more than seven catches, 59 yards, and one touchdown. It was a Wentz-like (lite?) performance.
The Eagles quarterback watched the game from home as he recovers from last week’s surgery to correct a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Foles said he heard from Wentz in the group text chain the quarterbacks share.
“He wants to be here so bad,” Foles said.
Foles has been here before – riding an Eagles team into the playoffs. But that 2013 season seems long ago. He’s had several NFL lives since. But he’s come full circle.
“It’s crazy, if I’m being honest, just wearing the Eagles jersey,” Foles said. “To go back to Philly and wear it, I take a lot of pride in that.”
So did the lone Eagles fan in the No. 9 Foles jersey from his Pro Bowl appearance four years ago. He yelled to the quarterback as he rolled his luggage passed the barricade. But Foles had his family to see.