NEW ORLEANS -- On the last great play that the Eagles made Sunday, on the last great play of a wild and marvelous two years for the franchise, Nick Foles dived forward into the north end zone of the Superdome, stretching the football across the goal line for a touchdown, holding it with both hands high over his head, as if it were a trophy.
It was a fitting scene for the final glimpse of glory everyone had of the 2018-19 Eagles, of a Super Bowl champion that wrung itself dry trying to defend its title. Foles’ 1-yard leap had sent the Superdome into silence and given the Eagles a 14-point lead against the New Orleans Saints, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and it was natural to believe that the Eagles were set to shock everyone again. From beating Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the New England Patriots last year to surging into the playoffs this year after their season seemed lost, they had come to specialize in upsetting people’s rational expectations.
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Only this time, that touchdown wasn’t a sign of things to come. It was a valediction, that last true highlight of a 20-14 divisional-round playoff loss that ended their season. That touchdown was as good as it was going to get.
“At the end of the day, New Orleans did a great job of fighting and getting themselves a win,” Foles said. “I feel good about everyone’s effort. Everyone gave everything.”
The aftermath of Sunday’s game will be a shower of second-guessing and should-have-beens: the Foles pass that deflected off Alshon Jeffery’s hands and into the arms of Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore for a soul-crushing interception late in the fourth quarter; Foles’ first interception to Lattimore, on the third play of the second quarter, when the Eagles had that two-touchdown lead and their hands on the Saints’ throats; the Drew Brees fumble that Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham should have fallen on; the third-and-longs that the Saints converted again and again against an Eagles secondary held together with Scotch Tape and pushpins. Yes, there will be plenty of what-ifs and why-didn’t-theys. It’s what fans do. It’s what we in Philadelphia do.
But Foles hit on two key truths about what happened here Sunday: One, the Saints won that game more than the Eagles lost it. The Eagles proved harder to kill than a garden weed, but understand: The Saints were the better team all season -- they routed the Eagles, 48-7, in mid-November on the same field -- and their best players were better than the Eagles’ on Sunday. Brees recovered from the interception, by Cre’Von LeBlanc, on his first throw to pass for 301 yards and two touchdowns. The Saints rushed for 137 yards, chewing up 11 minutes, 29 seconds of game clock on the third-quarter touchdown drive that gave them the lead for good. And that crowd and closed environment inside the Superdome, generating so much sound that it could make a skinny man’s chair shake while he was sitting in it, gives them an advantage few NFL teams can match. It would be a surprise if they did not win the NFC championship game next Sunday, against the Los Angeles Rams, and represent the conference in Super Bowl LIII.
Two, when it comes to their effort, the Eagles have nothing to apologize for. They had proved their mettle by rallying from a 6-7 record to win four consecutive games -- three of them on the road -- just to reach this point. And in a season in which they’ve been riddled with injuries to many of their stars and most important players, quarterback Carson Wentz among them, Sunday continued the pattern. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox played intermittently after suffering a foot injury early in the second quarter. Cornerback Rasul Douglas was sidelined for stretches with an ankle problem. Jeffery played through broken ribs. And guard Brandon Brooks confirmed after the game what was feared when he went down to the turf nearly nine minutes in and never returned: He tore his right Achilles tendon. He shuffled out of the locker room on crutches, his entire right leg covered in a tan bandage, a black elastic band wrapped snugly just above his heel.
“Losing those guys for periods of time, it’s disruptive a little bit,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “But that’s kind of been our season. … I just told the guys, ‘We said it all the way back [in the spring]: No regrets. We did that this afternoon. We battled right to the end. I’m proud of them.”
He has every right and reason to be. There will be uncomfortable questions that the franchise will have to address this offseason, particularly at quarterback: Foles is unlikely to return; he wants to be a starter, and the Eagles already have committed to Wentz. But those answers and changes will come in due time. That humiliating loss here in November had left the Eagles 4-6, but what seemed at the time like their last gasp was actually the beginning of a thrilling rescue of their season, a Lazarus project that no one saw coming and that, maybe, everyone should have. No, the 2018-19 Eagles didn’t win another championship, but they exhausted themselves in the chase. Everyone gave everything. There are worse epitaphs.