The chartered jet that rose into the sky from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 18, was a perfect vessel for a melancholy jazz refrain.
The plane contained the traveling party of the Philadelphia Eagles organization, the defending Super Bowl champions of the NFL, but also a team that could neither defend nor advance that afternoon against a far superior New Orleans Saints team.
“Nobody said a whole lot,” offensive tackle Lane Johnson remembered. “What can you say? But usually from those toughest losses, you end up learning the most.”
The perspective has changed drastically from that Sunday to this Sunday – as the Eagles prepare for an unexpected postseason rematch against the Saints in New Orleans – because at the time, it seemed what they learned from the first meeting was that they weren’t good enough to mount a repeat run through the playoffs.
“That was a time we had to check ourselves,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said of the blistering 48-7 loss. “Since then, we found our identity and put our pride out in the forefront. We have a chance to compete against a team that blew our doors off earlier this year. There’s not many things you get a second chance in life to do. We have that opportunity and we very much look forward to the chance of competing again.”
If the Eagles championship last season, achieved after backup Nick Foles replaced injured franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, was a surprise, the current team’s rise from the depths of November is utterly shocking by comparison. Foles has once again taken over for Wentz, but this time he didn’t slip behind the wheel of a cruising automobile. He took control instead of a heap that was barely limping along the shoulder of the season, leaking oil and spewing exhaust.
“You have to believe that you can get it done,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Guys really understood what we needed to do, and came together. They’ve jelled, and here we are today.”
The Eagles took their motivation from the Nov. 18 game on a number of levels. They were embarrassed for themselves and determined that the rest of the games on the schedule, whatever the outcomes, would not be a repeat of that.
They also felt the Saints had layered on an extra dose of humiliation by continuing to expand the margin of defeat after the game had been long decided. When New Orleans coach Sean Payton called for a long pass play in the fourth quarter that beat Jenkins, who previously played for Payton and the Saints, for an additional touchdown, Jenkins responded by raising a middle finger to the New Orleans sideline. Just so his meaning wasn’t misconstrued, he then raised the other one.
“I see that as a guy who probably knows Sean Payton extremely damn well,” Johnson said.
Whatever exact motivation was taken by each of them from that game, as a team the Eagles have won six of seven games since, including the last four in succession after Foles replaced Wentz. The turnaround has coincided, in large part, with the team’s recovering from a series of injuries that thinned the roster, placing unproven players on the field, and leaving others struggling to stay there.
The offensive line, the backbone of the offense, is healthy and sound really for the first time this season. Running back Darren Sproles has returned to add needed versatility to the offense. The defensive backfield, which lost four of its five top players to injury, is now manned by replacements who had to grow into their jobs.
“Health is a big factor, and we had some guys starting in that game who never really played an NFL game, on both sides of the ball,” tight end Zach Ertz said of the loss to the Saints. “We’re playing at a high level now. We’re a different team as a whole from the team that was on the field that day. We have more confidence and swagger than we have all season. We’re a 9-7 sixth seed. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
They played with that swagger last Sunday in Chicago as they upset the favored Bears in the opening round of the playoffs, even if it was a skin-of-the-teeth win that could have easily gone the other way.
But the Eagles are familiar with situations that left uncertain their next direction. As the charter took off in New Orleans eight weeks ago, the plane headed to Philadelphia. Where the Eagles were actually headed was an unknown.
“Going through that was not easy as a team … but it brought us closer together,” Foles said. “It can separate a team or bring you closer, and that brought us closer.”