The Philadelphia Eagles and Coach Doug Pederson rode two heart-stopping 4th down conversions to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.
Even after posting a 13-3 regular season record and winning two playoff games as home underdogs, the Philadelphia Eagles were installed as 5 and a half point dogs only minutes after punching their ticket to Minneapolis. It was understandable, inasmuch as they would be facing the Coach Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots. After all, the Pats were playing in their 8th title game since 2001 and there had only been eight other teams in the league who had even made the playoffs eight times in that span. For a team that had come to embrace the underdog role, it was business as usual.
The Delaware Valley was well represented by stirring performances of America the Beautiful by East Oak Lane’s Leslie Odom, Jr and the National Anthem by Doylestown’s Alecia Moore, aka Pink. Any feelings that this was a good omen were cancelled when New England won the coin toss. They elected to give the Eagles the ball to start and defer their advantage until after halftime.
Starting at their own 26-yard line, Philadelphia began with three short passes from QB Nick Foles. On the 1st and 10 play that followed LeGarrette Blount was clotheslined by Patriot LB Kyle Van Noy for a loss that led to a 3rd and 12. The ability to survive and even thrive in 3rd and long situations had been a defining characteristic of Pederson’s team all season long. So, the fifteen yard pass to Torrey Smith that moved the chains should have come as no surprise. Momentum continued to build, eventually leading to a 15-yard catch and run by rookie Corey Clement that set them up at the Patriots’ 5-yard-line. But, a false start by TE Zach Ertz derailed that momentum and they settled for a Jake Elliott field goal and a 3-0 lead.
The Eagles defense took the field with a stated goal of pressuring New England’s ageless, all-everything QB Tom Brady each time he dropped back to pass. On the drive’s initial play, they achieved that goal and Brady’s first throw of the game was hurried and incomplete. Unfazed, Brady drove his charges downfield as his protectors kept the vaunted Eagle pass rush at bay. Like the Birds had done, they drove into the red zone and settled for three points.
Foles & Co. countered with two big plays, a 36-yard sprint to the near sideline by Blount followed by a 34-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery that the former Chicago Bear reached high over Eagles castaway Eric Rowe to gather in for the go-ahead score. Elliott sliced his PAT attempt just outside the right goal post and the Eagles led 9-3.
New England answered with a drive that was highlighted by a 50-yard pass to Danny Amendola, who exploited a coverage miscommunication and slipped into a wide open space. The Eagles defense stiffened, including a curious play that saw WR Brandin Cooks try to hurdle S Rodney McLeod. Like something out of professional wrestling, McLeod caught the leaping receiver in mid-air and brought him down short of the marker. On the ensuing field goal attempt, P Ryan Allen let a low snap go through his hands, throwing off the rhythm of the usually dependable Stephen Gostkowski. The veteran kicker booted a knuckleball that started well left of his target then seemed to miraculously curl back toward the left upright. No miracle came as the ball rang off the apparatus, leaving the score unchanged early in the second quarter.
The offense units for both teams were exerting their will and it was beginning to seem like any drive that didn’t result in points could be the difference in the game. Naturally, the Eagles then punted on the game’s only three-and-out.
On the next play, Brady found Cooks in a hole in the zone coverage. As he curled back toward the ball, Cooks seemed to be unsure where to go in the open field. His indecision allowed S Malcolm Jenkins to line up a highlight reel hit that left the 4th-year player from Oregon State motionless on the turf. He would not return to action. The play went for 23 yards and the Pats made it as far as the Eagles’ 35. On 3rd and 5, they went with a reverse to Amendola, who checked up and lofted a pass to a wide open Brady. The future Hall of Famer, whose wife had once declared ‘can’t throw the ball and catch it too’, made her words stand up as he failed to reel in the sure first down. Brady then missed suspected cyborg Rob Gronkowski on a 4th down pass, as DE Brandon Graham brought pressure and DB Jalen Mills provided the coverage downfield. The turnover-on-downs put the Philadelphia offense back in business.
After two short runs by RB Jay Ajayi, Foles hit on passes to Ertz for 19 and Jeffery for 22 that took them to the New England 21. Reserve Offensive Lineman Isaac Seumalo checked in to the game and lined up outside of LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Blount ran to that bolstered left side and went virtually untouched into the endzone for the score. Pederson opted to ‘chase the points’ and go for a two-point conversion. Foles’ pass to a back-peddling Jeffery fell incomplete as the rangy receiver lost his footing.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) February 5, 2018
Block pool players around the world were now staring, dumfounded at a 15-3 score with 8:48 to go in the first half.
Facing a twelve point deficit, the Patriots opened their next drive with a perfectly executed screen pass that featured run-action fakes in both directions before the pass to RB Rex Burkhead who had his blocking set up in front of him. The 49-yard catch-and-run led to a Gostkowski field goal.
Ajayi busted out for 26 yards on a 3rd and 4 run that carried his team across midfield. Continuing with the play calling aggression that had served his team well, Pederson had Foles look for Jeffery along the right sideline. As he was being aggressively defended by his college teammate Stephon Gilmore, Jeffery first tried to pin the ball against his right shoulder. When it squirted free, he reactively reached for it with his left hand, resulting in a deflection that allowed DB Duron Harmon to make the opportunistic interception near the goal line.
The game’s first takeaway had prevented a possible score. It remained to be seen if it would turn the momentum completely. On 3rd-and-6, Brady failed to connect with former Penn State lacrosse player Chris Hogan and it looked like a timely three-and-out. But, Mills was called for Defensive Holding. Given new life, the Pats started marching. A few modest gains by former Eagle Dion Lewis were followed by a pinpoint 43-yard pass to Hogan. James White, who had three TD’s in last year’s Super Bowl victory over the Atlanta Falcons, suddenly manifested himself with a 26-yard display of speed, power and a little shiftiness that went for six points. In a continuation of an apparent theme, Gostkowski’s PAT was dead left off his foot. The kicking woes notwithstanding, it was now a three point game and New England would be receiving the opening kickoff in the second half.
Kenyon Barner’s kick return took the clock to the Two-Minute Warning and the ball to the Eagles’ 30. With all three of their times out in hand, Pederson’s offense would have an excellent opportunity to cushion their lead before heading up the tunnel. On 3rd and 3, Foles placed a soft touch pass into the hands of Clement as he wheeled past S Jordan Richards. The undrafted rookie from Wisconsin turned on the jets and turned toward the middle of the field. Harmon stepped up and was obliterated by a stiff arm as Clement rumbled for 55, finally being brought down inside the 10-yard-line. With the clock running and a score imminent, Pederson called successive runs to Clement. Whether the plan was to burn clock or force Belichick to call time out, it worked. Unfortunately, it didn’t move the ball much and, when a 3rd and goal pass to Jeffery was incomplete, the Birds faced a 4th and Goal with 0:38 left in the first half.
Foles lined up his offense, giving his coaches a chance to survey the New England defense, and called a timeout. He jogged to the sideline and casually uttered a question that would immediately become the stuff of legend. “You want Philly Philly?” This was a reference to the Philly Special, a ‘trick play’ they had ‘borrowed’ from the Chicago Bears after seeing it during their video preparation for the NFC Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings. Pederson paused, looked at his QB, perhaps gauging his confidence in the call, and gave it the green light. The play called for Foles to feign an audible, repositioning Clement in the backfield and calling out ‘Kill! Kill!’ before walking toward RT Lane Johnson and shouting his name. At that point, center Jason Kelce snapped the ball directly to Clement who broke to his left behind a line shifting in the same direction. Ertz slid down the line to seal the right edge as Clement pitched the ball to TE Trey Burton. Lost in the confusion, Foles had quietly slipped into the vacated right side of the field which had been cleared by Jeffery who ran a slant, pulling his man into the middle of the end zone. Burton, who was recruited to the University of Florida as a QB, delivered a perfect pass that Foles reeled in for a jaw dropping score that made it clear to anyone who had not already figured it out … these underdogs were snarling and hungry. At the half, Philadelphia had a 22-12 lead.
Some may have been disappointed by the lack of ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ in Justin Timberlake’s halftime show. But, great entertainers know their audience and Timberlake’s nod to Prince hit the right notes. The lighting trick that recreated ‘The Artist’s’ iconic logo in purple around US Bank Stadium was exceptional. Enough about that … let’s talk football.
Patriots’ TE Rob Gronkowski had been in the league’s concussion protocol for a little over a week after their victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game. Cleared to play, he had been noticeably silent (5 Targets, 1 Rec, 9 Yards) in the first half. Perhaps the idea that a hit like the one Jenkins delivered in the first half, the one that debilitated Cooks, could place ‘Gronk’ right back in the medical tent, may have resulted in him playing more of a decoy role.
Trailing by 10 seemed to make those concerns secondary as Brady targeted the behemoth early and often in the second half’s opening drive. Five times he threw that way, resulting in four catches, 68 yards and a touchdown. If you thought the first half was surprisingly offensive, you may want to grab a hold of something, because things were about to get entirely out of hand.
The Eagles shrugged off a penalty on the kick return that pushed them back to their own 15 and put together an effective drive that featured two 3rd Down completions by Foles, to Agholor and Ertz. Eventually, they faced a 3rd-and-6 at the New England 22. Foles launched a pinpoint accurate pass to the back of the end zone that eluded the outstretched hands of two Patriot defenders and landed perfectly in the arms of Clement. As the rookie running back tumbled out of the end zone, the question of whether it was going to count was already being asked by everyone watching. Commentator Chris Collinsworth, a retired wide receiver who has been exceedingly vocal about his issues with what the NFL considers a catch, immediately declared it incomplete based on similar plays he had seen called that way. After the mandated review, Referee Gene Steratore confirmed the call on the field of a good catch and a TD. In a refreshing change of pace, the PAT was converted without issue and Philadelphia had restored its 10-point advantage.
Undaunted, Brady and his charges went 75 yards in seven plays, including two passes to Hogan, the second of which was a 26-yard scoring play that was so easy it looked like something out of an OTA drill. Their response was so swift and immediate that Collinsworth likened the pace of the game to ‘fast break basketball’.
Keeping the clock winding and maintaining their lead with scoring drives were clearly the priorities for an Eagles team that had found no means of stopping or even slowing the Patriot offense. They moved 41 yards downfield on successive completions, this time to Agholor and Smith, as the third quarter was winding down. On the first play of the final quarter, a 3rd-and-3 bubble screen to Agholor was blown up by DE Marquis Flowers for an eight yard loss. They settled for an Elliott field goal and a tenuous six point lead.
New England began with three runs by Burkhead before returning to the passing attack that was racking up record setting yardage. Brady carved up the Birds’ D, resulting in a 4-yard fade to Gronkowski in the corner of the end zone. Eagles DB Ronald Darby seemed helpless as the much larger tight end reeled in the pass. Gostkowski gave New England its first lead of the game as a familiar wave of dread flooded the Delaware Valley.
That wave clearly crested nowhere near the Philadelphia sideline, as Foles confidently huddled his offense with 9:22 left to play. He coolly connected with Ertz to convert yet another third down. But, on the next third down play, the ageless James Harrison read and disrupted a play designed for Smith, allowing Devin McCourty to bring him down. It was only fitting, considering his penchant for fourth down displays of bravado, that Pederson would be presented with a 4th-and-short on his side of midfield with everything on the line. Of course, he went for it. Foles rolled left, eluding Malcolm Brown and Trey Flowers, before finding Ertz just past the sticks to keep the drive alive. The ball was just short of midfield and the game clock was down to five minutes. There was now a legitimate possibility that the Birds could drive for the go ahead or winning score and burn the clock all the way down. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Three consecutive completions to Agholor moved them into the Red Zone and New England began to utilize their remaining times out to preserve the dwindling clock. On 3rd and 7 at the 11-yard-line, Ertz lined up wide to the left and crossed the face of a stumbling McCourty as he caught Foles’ pass in stride before turning upfield and diving for the end zone. Upon Ertz’ landing, the ball popped briefly into the air and was recaptured by the rolling tight end. Once again, an Eagles score would be called into question. Collinsworth, referencing a controversial play involving Pittsburgh Steelers’ TE Jesse James, reinvigorated his detractors in Eagle Nation by declaring the play incomplete. Again, this was more about his frustration as a receiver than his perceived bias against our fair city and those who would represent her on the gridiron. Alas, the desire to permanently shut his stupid, douchey and arrogant mouth is strong among the green clad singers of ‘Fly, Eagles Fly’. After what seemed like an eternity, Steratore confirmed the ruling on the field of a touchdown and the Birds had regained the lead. The five point advantage demanded a two-point conversion attempt. Foles rolled right on a play designed to single up the elusive Clement with a linebacker. That linebacker, Kyle Van Noy, clearly shoved Clement before the ball arrived. No flags flew and, again, the Birds had to settle for six.
For nearly 48 minutes, the Eagles’ pass rush had failed to get to Brady as he rolled up what would be record numbers (28/48, 505 Yards, 3 TD). Patriots’ punter Ryan Allen had only seen the field as a holder for Gostkowski. Now, with the game on the line, they had to make a stop.
The drive began with an 8-yard connection to Gronkowski. Then, on 2nd and 2, Graham lined up inside of Chris Long on the left side of the line. Exploiting his matchup with G Shaq Mason, the 13th pick in the 2010 draft got home. Dropping a powerful left handed chop, he dislodged the ball from Brady’s hands. Then, as if guided by the repentant ghosts of Rod Martin, Aeneas Williams, Ronde Barber, Ricky Manning, Deion Branch and Larry Fitzgerald, the ball bounced toward DE Derek Barnett. It obediently leapt into the rookie’s hands, setting his team up at the Patriot 31 with 2:09 to play.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) February 5, 2018
Belichick would have his final timeout and the Two-Minute-Warning to stop the clock. But, if the Birds could score and extend their lead beyond eight points, none of that would matter. Pederson had to decide between the aggression that had brought his team this far and the conventional wisdom of grinding and killing the clock. He chose the latter, opting to go to his battering ram Blount three times in a row. The result was an Elliott three pointer that extended the lead to 41-33, leaving the legendary Brady with about a minute to weave his magic.
He almost didn’t get the chance. On the kick return, the Pats special teams tried a little ‘razzle dazzle’. It didn’t work. Not only did it pin them down 91 yards from their goal, it burned precious seconds. After three incompletions by a harried and hurried Brady, it was down to a 4th-and-10. The problem with players like Brady and teams like these Patriots is that they tend to not know when to quit. Amendola got some separation from his coverage resulting in a 13-yard stay of execution. Reinvigorated, Brady found Gronkowski for a pair of catches that took them to midfield with 0:13 left to play. The Hail Mary was now in play. But, Brady threw short to the near sideline with nearly disastrous results. Darby stepped in front of intended receiver Phillip Dorsett and, for a flicker, it appeared that the game might end with an interception. It didn’t.
With nine seconds remaining and no means of stopping the clock, it was clear what New England would now do. Philadelphia dropped eight men into coverage against a classic ‘Trips Right’ formation. Graham whistled past OT Cameron Fleming and nearly ended things with a sack. Brady worked himself free, stepped right, into an open space, and launched his desperate final salvo as DT Fletcher Cox laid into him. Gronkowski had raced to the goal line and positioned himself at the front of the mass of humanity that would be vying to catch Brady’s bomb or knock it to the ground. It may seem like mayhem, but there is some measure of structure to these plays. Dorsett and Amendola positioned themselves a few yards away, ready to make a play on a tipped ball. As several dozen fingers extended upward, McLeod had the highest hand and slapped the ball downward off the helmet and shoulder of the sprawling Gronkowski. Patrick Robinson, who had made a habit of timely interceptions all season, reached for the ball as if to catch it. His futile attempt kept the play alive, giving Amendola a chance to dive for a miraculous TD catch. He was too late. His outstretched hands grasped the ball as it bounced upward from the turf. The pass was incomplete and the play was over. All eyes turned at once to the game clock … 0:00.0 … the game was over. The words Eagles fans everywhere had waited to hear for 58 years were finally spoken:
“THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES ARE NFL CHAMPIONS!!”
Joyous mayhem erupted simultaneously on the field in Minneapolis and in several locations throughout Philadelphia and its gleeful suburbs. The long overdue celebration was a glorious harbinger of the parade that would take place a few days later. Naturally, a few knuckleheads distilled their elation into the sort of stupidity that the national media feasts upon at times like these. But, to the overwhelming contrary, there was rapture, relief and revelries as fireworks flashed, car horns honked and pots and pans rang out their celebratory alarm. Families and friends toasted those who never got to see this day and dedicated their cheers and tears to their beloved memories. Deep into the night and the early morning they crowded stores to buy mementos and merchandise, continuously asking each other to confirm what was actually happening. That confirmation was cheerfully given in voices rendered hoarse by the endless howling and chanting of ‘E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!!’
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As Monday dawned, sportscasters, pundits and fans began to dissect what they had seen. No game in modern NFL history, let alone a championship game, had ever seen the amassing of so many yards (1151). Only one prior Super Bowl had seen more points scored and New England’s 33 were more than any losing team had ever scored. The rookie record for the longest field goal in a Super Bowl was set (42), then re-set (46) by Elliott. There was only one sack and only one punt. A backup quarterback who had nearly retired a few seasons earlier stood toe-to-toe with the man who many football fans consider the greatest QB of all time, trading haymakers like Rocky Balboa with Apollo Creed, and he emerged as the champion and MVP. The enduring vison of Foles post-game may be him gazing, exhausted and incredulous, at the Lombardi Trophy and simply saying ‘Wow’.
Of all the unprecedented, unforgettable and indelible moments, it could be said that it was those two 4th down conversions that led to this franchise finally converting on ‘Fourth and Forever’.