NEW ORLEANS -- Alshon Jeffery was facedown on the field, his helmet buried in the turf, the moist warmth of reflected breath tickling his cheeks. The run was over, and it had ended on his watch. The Eagles were driving, and then they weren’t. The magic was alive, and then it wasn’t. With two minutes remaining and the ball in New Orleans territory and 60,000-plus feeling far from confident about the home team’s six-point lead, the most magical calendar year in franchise history ended with a play that wasn’t made.
All around him, swarms of black jerseys converged on each other in celebration. In that moment, a 20-14 playoff loss to the Saints hanging on the scoreboard, Jeffery was alone.
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“I let my teammates down, the city of Philadelphia," the wide receiver said later, his voice low and tinged with disbelief. "That’s on me. I’ll take that.”
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That’s not an accurate reflection of reality, of course. There had been 58 minutes of football played before that Nick Foles bullet whizzed through Jeffery’s hands and into the arms of a Saints defender as the clock ticked under two minutes. There had been three, nearly four quarters of action in which the Eagles repeatedly failed to build upon an early 14-0 lead. For two drives, they had been perfect. And then, for the rest of the game, they’d been anything but.
No, this one wasn’t on Jeffery. On the ledger of this season, he remains very much in the black. The Eagles were losers on Sunday because of a number of variables, none of them exclusive to one player alone. They needed to be perfect. And this was a rare crunch-time game in which they fell short of that threshold.
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Foles wasn’t perfect. He was darn close to it for a quarter or so, marching the Eagles down the field on two consecutive touchdown drives while completed eight of nine passes. But on each subsequent possession, the Saints seemed to find some new way to knock him out of his rhythm.
Zach Ertz wasn’t perfect. He finished the game with five catches and 50 yards after a regular season in which he averaged seven and 70. On the opening drive of the second half, Foles threw a ball up for grabs to him deep down the field, but Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore came down with the catch. It was the exact sort of play that decided this game. Foles said later he should have thrown it a foot higher, but it wasn’t his fault. Nor was it Ertz’s. Lattimore just made the better play.
This was a game that was decided at the most granular levels of the margins. A fumble slipping into and out of Brandon Graham’s grasp. A perfectly thrown deep ball sailing over the inside shoulder of a receiver who did not turn his head. A defensive lineman who jumped offside to give Brees a free shot down the field, the end result a 42-yard gain.
“We beat ourselves,” Jeffery said.
That they were even in a position to do so is a small wonder, with a backup quarterback and third-string secondary and a regular season that very nearly left them on the outside looking in. The hits kept coming throughout the game: Fletcher Cox walking gingerly to the sideline, Michael Bennett joining him, Brandon Brooks leaving in the first quarter and taking the Eagles' running game with him.
Yet they were good enough to be here: more so than any of the experts gave them credit for. In the end, they were beaten by a Hall of Fame quarterback who made all the throws he had to make.
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They did not blink. They could have. Maybe they should have. But they didn’t. That doesn’t mean the season isn’t over. But it counts for something, no?
“The thing I’ll remember about this group of guys is just the resiliency, the persistence, the unwavering fight," center Jason Kelce said. “We have tough guys. We have resilient guys. We have guys that aren’t going to quit. When they are backed into a corner, they are going to keep fighting with everything they’ve got.”
As for Jeffery, well, the taste of how it ended won’t soon leave.
“It’ll be with me the whole offseason, when I’m training and grinding," he said. "I know each guy in this locker room, we want the same thing. We hate this feeling.”
There was a moment after Jeffery’s missed catch and the Saints' subsequent interception that spoke volumes about the character of this team. One by one, his Eagles teammates saw the wide receiver laying face down on the field. One by one, they began to jog in his direction. As the Saints celebrated, Jeffery felt a hand on his jersey. Then he felt another. And another. There was Foles, and there was Golden Tate, and there were a couple other white jerseys, pulling the despondent receiver up off the mat.
“It hurts right now,” Jeffery said later, “but I guarantee we’ll be back next year for sure."
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