It’s funny, the way minds and memories work. Take the Eagles, their run to the Super Bowl, and their 2018 season, with all its hills and valleys.
That Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots, highlighted by Nick Foles’ MVP performance, was on Feb. 4. The Eagles’ previous game, their rout of the Minnesota Vikings to win the NFC championship, happened two weeks earlier, on Jan. 21, and one could argue Foles was better in that game than he was in getting the better of Tom Brady.
Now, in light of Foles’ play over the last three weeks, over the three victories that launched the Eagles into Sunday’s wild-card-round playoff game against the Chicago Bears, those magical moments from a year ago seem fresher, don’t they? It’s as if the five games form an unbroken continuum of surprising greatness for the Eagles. They had Foles. They were underdogs. Foles is back. As the sixth and last seed in this NFC postseason bracket, they are underdogs again. It all blends into one happy narrative in the mind’s eye, all hilltops.
The valleys … well, they’re muddled and murky when you try to remember them, aren’t they? But they were there. They happened, too, and they happened right away, when everyone — including the Eagles themselves — were still basking in that championship afterglow.
Foles, still playing in place of Carson Wentz, was shaky for most of the season’s first two games. Once Wentz finished rehabilitating the torn ligaments in his left knee and returned to the lineup, the Eagles offense seemed to lack the same crispness and dynamism that it had with him in 2017. Other key players, such as safety Rodney McLeod and defensive end Derek Barnett, suffered significant injuries.
Mostly, though, the Eagles just weren’t as good a team as they had been the year before. Doug Pederson’s play-calling was questionable at times; the coach who had consented to run Philly Special on fourth-and-goal in the Super Bowl wasn’t quite as daring, particularly in some important moments in important games.
Twice, the Eagles led an opponent by at least 14 points in the second half and lost. They were favorites, and they weren’t wearing that new vestment well. They were 4-6 after an embarrassing, 41-point loss to the New Orleans Saints in mid-November, and they were 6-7 after an overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys in early December, and it was only after they were on the brink, peering over into the abyss, that they got their edge back.
“To be an underdog and get back to that, we had to go through a lot as a team, because we didn’t start out that way this year,” Foles said. “It was actually the opposite, and then we went through some growing pains as a team. We had to fight through it.
"On the outside, everyone’s wondering what happened. We’re sticking together, going through the adversity, and I think the big thing, through it all, was that we continued to evolve, and your DNA as a team starts meshing together. We’ve talked about that. Every year, it’s a new DNA. So I think it’s brought us closer together, what’s happened this year, the ups and downs and everything.”
In some ways, what the Eagles experienced this season is common in the modern NFL. From the draft to the salary cap to its players’ non-guaranteed contracts, the league is structured to encourage parity among its 32 franchises. The difference between a good team and a bad one can be a razor’s blade. A club that would seem a surefire Super Bowl participant early on — say, the Los Angeles Rams — often reveals its weaknesses as the season progresses, and a change, whether sudden or gradual, can transform a mediocre team into a dangerous opponent. The Eagles fit that latter mold.
“We trusted the process,” tight end Zach Ertz said, borrowing the mantra that has guided the 76ers’ rise from an NBA bottom-feeder to a potential championship contender. “I think that phrase is very often overused in this city, but at the same time, I think it holds true. We didn’t panic by any means. No one was out there pointing the finger. Everyone was just focused on doing their job better.
“We weren’t executing at the level we were capable of. Guys weren’t playing up to their capabilities, and it wasn’t one guy. It was each and every person on the offense. We practiced harder. Guys were putting everything they had into being a successful team and a successful offense, and we didn’t make it bigger than it was. We just had to go out there and play football to the best of our abilities, and I think everyone did that.”