They lost their starting kicker in the first game of the season. They lost a three-time Pro Bowl running back later in September. They lost a six-time All-Pro and potential Hall of Fame offensive tackle, and their starting middle linebacker, in the same game in October. And they lost their starting quarterback in December.
On Sunday night, the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl championship.
The Eagles defeated the New England Patriots, 41-33, in a frenetic game that made up in offense and drama what it lacked in defense and organization. The two teams punted but once, eclipsed the Super Bowl record for most yards gained by the game’s third quarter, and ended up setting a record for most yards gained by two teams (1,151) in a National Football League game ever.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who took over from starter Carson Wentz following the latter’s injury, earned Most Valuable Player honors, throwing for 373 yards and three touchdowns. Following shaky performances in the Eagles’ last two regular-season games, Foles led the Birds to three straight playoff wins and the title, reprising the role played by backup Jeff Hostettler when he led the New York Giants to a win in Super Bowl XXV.
Foles, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, and the organization did not shrink from the challenge they faced, or flinch before the mythology of Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick and the legendary comebacks of quarterback Tom Brady. Underdogs in this game, as in all three of their postseason games—a first for a team with the league’s best regular-season record—Pederson tweaked the playbook to Foles’ style, but kept his aggressive playcalling intact.
Two play calls late in the first half told the tale. In Eagles territory and on the edge of field goal range, Belichick went for broke on fourth-and-five, turning the ball over on downs following an incompletion to tight end Rob Gronkowski rather than attempting a field goal. The failed conversion came after a halfback option gadget play went awry—quarterback Tom Brady dropped a pass thrown by receiver Danny Amendola.
By contrast, Pederson’s fourth-and-goal gadget play a few minutes later, “Philly Special,” did work—Foles caught the ball from Trey Burton in the end zone, becoming the first quarterback in Super Bowl history to receive a touchdown pass and putting the Eagles up at halftime 22-12. Those two plays’ contrasting outcomes—the ball Brady dropped, and the one Foles caught—made all the difference.
For all its drama, the game included myriad errors. An ill-timed false-start penalty by Philadelphia on its opening drive precluded a touchdown, forcing the Eagles to settle for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. Kicker Jacob Elliott, who replaced starter Caleb Sturgis following Sturgis’ September injury, missed an extra point on the Eagles’ next possession, a touchdown to Alshon Jeffery, limiting the lead to 9-3. Defying the Patriots’ reputation for clutch kicking, Stephen Gostkowski followed suit, missing an extra point attempt and a field goal following a botched snap.
Despite the talk coming into the game of the Eagles’ vaunted pass rush—both teams ranked in the top-five in total defense all season, Sunday’s track meet notwithstanding—the Birds did not lay a finger on Brady until it mattered most. After the Patriots took a 33-32 lead, Foles led the Eagles down for a touchdown pass to tight end Zach Ertz; a failed two-point conversion gave Philadelphia a 38-33 margin with 2:21 left in the game. At that point, the defense took over, with Brandon Graham’s sack of Brady forcing a fumble, and teammate Derek Barnett recovering.
A quick Eagles drive ended in a field goal, and a 41-33 lead, but with 1:05 remaining—enough time for Brady to summon his team for a last-minute effort to tie the game and force overtime. Precious seconds ticked away, but Brady marshaled his team to midfield with just enough left for a single Hail Mary attempt.
Brady hurled the ball skyward into the night, and as the final nine seconds ticked away, the Eagle partisans in the crowd of 67,612 felt trepidation, confusion, disbelief. Then—after a hushed and seemingly interminable wait—exhilaration.
Philadelphia’s first championship in the Super Bowl era (the Eagles last won the NFL title in 1960) could mark a turning point in the histories of both franchises. The Eagles have virtually of their starters under contract for next season, not one but two quarterbacks of MVP caliber in Foles and Wentz, and a coach in Pederson unafraid to make gutsy play calls, or of opponents across the sidelines.
By contrast, the Patriots could suffer from a winter of discontent, with rumored discord between Belichick and Brady prompting questions whether one or both will leave the team. Belichick, who turns 66 in April, will likely suffer a “brain drain” this offseason, as several of his assistants take head coaching jobs elsewhere.
Biology would term Brady, despite becoming the oldest MVP ever at the age of 40 this season, in the twilight of his career—no matter how long or short. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, after suffering from multiple concussions, spoke openly of retirement after the game. In time, the image of Brady slinking to the sideline after his late-game fumble could represent the end of an era—and perhaps the start of a new one.
But those discussions could wait for future days. On Sunday, the City of Brotherly Love finally—after a 57-year wait—had its champion. The mentality of “next man up,” of overcoming obstacles, and respecting opponents without being intimidated by them, led Philadelphia to a magical winter run that turned the Twin Cities into a frozen football paradise.
A fortnight ago, as the Eagles celebrated their NFC Championship after a 38-7 thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings, Fox Sports announcer Terry Bradshaw used the postgame show to lead the crowd in the opening line of the Philadelphia fight song, “Fly Eagles Fly.” He wanted to pivot quickly to his interview but the crowd, having nothing of it, proceeded to sing the entire song. Bradshaw pleaded for quiet, but even Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, the intended interviewee, ignored the announcer and sang along. Bradshaw was left to mutter into his microphone to no one in particular, “I shouldn’t have got the song going.”
No Terry, you shouldn’t have. Everyone knows that people should only start things if they have the wherewithal to finish them. On a frigid Sunday in Minneapolis, the Eagles did just that.
Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.