Sunday 22 July 2018

Grand finale victory would complete ultimate underdog story and be fitting for diehard fans

Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles passes the ball during Super Bowl LII practice. Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles passes the ball during Super Bowl LII practice. Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

The Philadelphia Eagles are a bit like the New England Patriots in reverse. In the 52 years since the first Super Bowl was played they've never won one. Go back to the old days before the merger of the NFL and AFL and it's 57 years since the Eagles won a championship, the 1960 NFL title. Only the Detroit Lions have had a longer barren run. The Eagles are spectacular under-achievers.

Twice they've made it to the Super Bowl, losing in 1981 to the Oakland Raiders and in 2005 to the Patriots. That team of the noughties was probably the finest in their history yet it added to the impression of the Eagles as nearly men, losing three NFC title games on the trot before finally making it to the grand finale. There's been no Eagles team like that since and before this season Philadelphia hadn't even won a play-off game since 2009.

The oddness of this season for the Eagles can be summed up by the fact that they were the best team in the NFL for most of it and have been outsiders in every play-off game. The contradictory nature of these statements can be explained by what happened on December 10. That was the day Carson Wentz, their brilliant young quarterback who was enjoying an MVP-standard season, tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in a win over the Los Angeles Rams. As Wentz hobbled off the Eagles' hopes seemed to be disappearing with him.

Teams forced to rely on back-up quarterbacks late in the season usually collapse and in the first three games with Nick Foles at the helm the Eagles averaged a mere 16 points compared to the 32 points they'd been scoring with Wentz on board. Foles' superb display in the NFC title win over the Minnesota Vikings, 352 yards passing and three touchdowns, doesn't erase the question marks over his ability to do it in the biggest game of all.

Yet the Eagles could have had a worse replacement. Just four years ago Foles (pictured) was the wunderkind du jour, leading the league in passer rating and looking set for an illustrious career. Instead he struggled the following season before being sidelined with a broken collarbone and traded to the then St Louis Rams. There he had such a disastrous season that the best gig he could get two seasons ago was as back-up for the Kansas City Chiefs. Things got even worse when the Chiefs released him before he ended up back with the Eagles, a man with a great future behind him.

It's a fair bet that 12 months ago the towering Texan didn't expect to be lining up against Tom Brady in a Super Bowl. Eagles coach Doug Pederson may also be a bit surprised at how quickly he's been catapulted into the limelight. This time ten years ago the 50-year-old, a former back-up quarterback to two of the game's greatest in Brett Favre and Dan Marino, was coaching a high school team in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Prior to the start of last season his biggest job had been as offensive co-ordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. A 7-9 first season as Eagles coach seemed to confirm that he had a lot to learn. The comments of former NFL executive Mike Lombardi that, "Everybody knows Pederson isn't a head coach. He might be less qualified to coach a team than anyone I've seen in my 30-plus years in the NFL," might have been harsh but they didn't exactly run counter to the general opinion. Nobody regarded the Eagles as Super Bowl contenders this season and when they lost star running back Darren Sproles with a broken arm in week three it looked like they'd be lucky to surpass last season's underwhelming record.

Yet here they, and their inexperienced coach and their back-up quarterback, are when seemingly much better equipped teams have fallen by the wayside. That kind of resilience can make you wonder if the team's name might be on the trophy named after Mike Lombardi's more intelligent namesake Vince. You'd certainly hope so for the sake of the Eagles supporters, a byword for both loyalty (every home game since 1999 has been sold out) and fanaticism (they were voted the league's most intimidating fans in a Sports Illustrated poll of players).

Before the NFC title game the Philadelphia Police Department covered the city's lamp posts with grease to stop celebrating fans climbing them. That didn't stop the Eagles faithful. If their team win tonight the cops might have to chop down the poles altogether in the city which gave us the cheese steak, the greatest 1970s disco records and a mopey Bruce Springsteen video.

There's nothing quite like seeing a team winning the big one for the first time. That's why the victories of Offaly hurlers in 1981 and of Donegal, Derry, Tyrone and Armagh footballers in the nineties and noughties will always stick in the mind. Injury battered, unfancied and terminally unfashionable, Philadelphia enter tonight's game as the ultimate underdogs.

Go Eagles. Give them stick.

 

Men in the trenches to steal the limelight

Super Bowl talk tends to focus on the men in the glamour positions; quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, the occasional high-profile defensive back. Yet there are times when it’s been the guys working in the less immediately obvious areas who’ve made the crucial difference. It happened two years ago when the Denver Broncos stuffed the Carolina Panthers despite quarterback Peyton Manning contributing very little.

It also happened in the two New York Giants wins over the New England Patriots, which the Philadelphia Eagles will be hoping to emulate tonight. Giants quarterback Eli Manning was good but not great in both games. He didn’t need to be great because the Giants were winning key battles elsewhere. Similarly, Nick Foles doesn’t necessarily need to be great tonight, he probably just needs to be competent. If the Eagles win it will be because of the advantages they enjoy in areas which can often escape the attention of the casual viewer.

Philadelphia possess a magnificent offensive line, anchored by two current Pro Bowlers, 25-stone guard Brandon Brooks and 22-and-a-half stone tackle Lane Johnson. This gives them the chance to create space for their twin running backs Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount and give Foles time to pick out his passes.

Their defensive line is also terrific and might well have the edge over the Patriots’ offensive line. The stars here are defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham, both of whom will be hoping to put Tom Brady under serious pressure while their colleagues, who have the NFL’s best defensive record against the run, snuff out the Patriots’ relatively quotidian running game.

The Eagles’ secondary is not quite as impressive and may be vulnerable. However, it’s a lot better than that of the Patriots who had the third worst defence against the pass in the regular season. The potential is there for big Eagles passing plays involving the likes of 6ft 3in Alshon Jeffery, who scored more touchdowns than all but two other wide receivers in the regular season, speedster Torrey Smith and tight end Zach Ertz, as unplayable on his day as Patriots key man Rob Gronkowski.

There are also unsung heroes in the Patriots’ ranks. The comeback in the AFC title game against the Jaguars was down not just to Tom Brady but to a defensive line which held Jacksonville’s prodigious running back Leonard Fournette to 76 yards and eventually forced the outsiders to depend on the throwing of flaky quarterback Blake Bortles.

Chances are when the dust settles tonight it will be a marquee player, Brady or Foles, Gronkowski or Ertz, who ends up as MVP. Only four of the last 20 awards have gone to defenders and no offensive lineman has won one. Yet the result of Super Bowl LII may well rest on the performances of those who toil in the least glamorous positions. Keep an eye out for what goes down in the trenches tonight.

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