PHILADELPHIA – Doug Pederson tried to hold the message Saturday night. The one about how the Philadelphia Eagles weren’t thinking about underdog status or overwhelming doubt. As most head coaches do in success, he reached for that cliché about disrespect being nothing but outside noise and media fodder.
“They don’t care,” Pederson said of his players. “I don’t care.”
Little did Pederson know that his players were a few rooms over, passing around a dog mask in the locker room that spoke volumes. The bowels of this stadium were lined by redeemed smiles and knowing looks. This 15-10 victory against the Atlanta Falcons and the NFC championship game berth that came with it was nothing if not personal.
As Pederson would relent slightly and probably more truthfully, there has been a train of disbelief circling this franchise since Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury. And the Eagles finally derailed it Saturday night.
“Since that point, no one has given us a chance,” Pederson said. “Nobody has given us a chance. I understand, Carson’s a great player. But every week, our guys are hearing the same thing: that now we are all of the sudden not good enough.”
The engine behind that doubt was Nick Foles.
Seemingly everyone in Philadelphia knows the rise and fall of Foles, whose trials can be summed up in one snapshot: His season of perfection at 24 years old, and his contemplation of retirement at 27. The guy whose elevation to the starting job in the wake of Wentz’s season-ending injury was met with a depressing palm to the face from many Eagles fans. The same Foles whose rise on the depth chart single-handedly made Philadelphia a top-seeded home underdog in these playoffs.
If people absorb anything about this Eagles team, it should be this: A large part of this group is constructed on not good enough. And while every worthy NFL playoff team has parts of a roster comprised of someone else’s failed plan, this Eagles team has more than most. So Pederson will have to excuse players or executives and coaches who might be doing a little fist pump under the meeting room table this coming week. In a reality that mirrors the city that cradles the Eagles, a lot of people in this franchise have eaten a lot of dirt to get here. And that’s why the continuation of this dream season has a little bit of salvation rolled up inside it.
Consider the liberation of general manager Howie Roseman, who had control of this franchise wrestled away from him by coach Chip Kelly – only to take it back in a trajectory-altering coup. Or wideout Alshon Jeffery, who couldn’t prove enough to get paid by the Chicago Bears. Or defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who went from Baltimore Ravens building block to being jettisoned as a trade sweetener. Running back Jay Ajayi was lamented as a locker room cancer with the Miami Dolphins. Wideout Torrey Smith was harangued by San Francisco 49ers coaches and released as a massive free agency bust. Right tackle Lane Johnson lost millions in a questionable 10-game suspension that significantly altered the strength of his contract.
But if there’s anyone who should feel redeemed right now, it’s Foles. If only because he did exactly what was expected of him. For the most part, he didn’t screw anything up. In a situation like this, that’s a coach’s dream: To have a guy play within the offense, take the bits and pieces he can get in the passing game and then hand off and get out of the way. This was Pederson’s design on Saturday. To run the ball and chip away in the passing game. To make fewer mistakes than Atlanta and let the defense carry the day. And to hope more than anything that Foles didn’t have a meltdown when he stepped onto this massive playoff stage with an unbelievable opportunity at hand.
If Foles could win this one, the Eagles would host a dome team on their home turf. And in sickeningly cold weather. With a defense that continues to rise to the occasion at the perfect moments. All that was needed was for Foles to hold it together. And with an efficient 246 passing yards, he did – despite two fumbles, although one of those was arguably not his fault.
“He wasn’t rattled,” Ajayi said. “Every time on the sideline he was composed. That was big for us as an offense.”
“You guys doubted him,” Jeffrey added. “We never doubted him. We never said that.”
To be fair, the Eagles didn’t have to. Much of Foles’ history invited doubt. Not just because his stunning 2013 season seems like it a lifetime ago, but because Foles himself has admitted to have shaking doubts about his own career. The kind of questions that led him to going eight full months without picking up a football, leaving him to admit that he went through a period without love for the game.
Those kinds of guys usually don’t inspire confidence. Particularly when they replace a player the caliber of Wentz, who will garner MVP consideration despite playing in only 13 games. But there was Foles on Saturday night, hitting short to intermediate papercut passes that slowly drained the Falcons all night. Playing exactly the way Pederson had asked him – within himself but also productive enough to keep the offense balanced.
This and a great defense will erase thoughts of retirement quickly.
“I feel like every person goes through moments in their life where it’s a big-decision moment,” Foles said. “And that [thought of retirement] was it for me. And I’m glad I went through it. I’m a better person, a better player, better father, better husband because of what I went through and having to decide that – because I decided with my family. It’s unbelievable to be up here. … It’s been a crazy ride and I’m excited I get to do it with these guys.”
A crazy ride, with some crazy parts. And a crazy team that may very well be an underdog again next week, despite playing at home in the NFC championship game. It’s that kind of season for Philadelphia and this is that kind of team.
Still feeling like others see it as not good enough. Still proving that a collection of someone else’s failed plans can be more than expected. And more than anything, taking it all personally – because that’s exactly what it is this time of year.
More NFL on Yahoo Sports