One of my friends, a lifelong Eagles fan, sent me this text after the Super Bowl: “I’m beyond happy right now. Never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.”
You’re not dreaming, Eagles fans. Sunday night actually happened. David finally slayed Goliath. Thirteen years after losing a heartbreaker to New England in Super Bowl XXXIX, Philadelphia returned the favor with a dramatic 41-33 victory over the favored Patriots Sunday in Minneapolis. Beating the juggernaut Patriots is a feat in itself—only three teams did it during the regular season—but the Eagles get bonus points for doing it without the help of 1) All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters, 2) Swiss-army knife Darren Sproles and 3) the likely NFL MVP had he stayed healthy, Carson Wentz. So raise that Lombardi Trophy high, Philly. You deserve it. Maybe chill with the food fights at Wawa though, huh? This also looks inadvisable.
Gratuitous rioting and inebriated Kevin Hart cameos aside, Super Bowl LII was one for the books. If you were expecting Sunday’s title game to be a defensive showdown, you were quite incorrect. In fact, the combined yardage total from Super Bowl LII, 1,154, was the highest in NFL history. And that’s not just the Super Bowl. I mean every game EVER.
That, of course, can only mean two things. One, the 103.4 million American viewers (somehow, that’s the lowest number since 2009) who watched Super Bowl LII were treated to one of the greatest offensive spectacles in league history. And two, neither team played a lick of defense.
I’m sure a fair amount of you tuned into ESPN’s new 30 for 30, The Two Bills, which aired on Thursday night. The documentary paid close attention to Bill Belichick’s genius as the Giants’ defensive coordinator in the late 80s, leading New York to a pair of Super Bowls by altering his defensive scheme based on opponent. For example, during the team’s playoff run in 1986, Belichick convinced Bill Parcells to abandon the team’s usual zone-coverage in favor of a man-to-man scheme against the Joe Montana-led 49ers. The Giants won, 49-3.
Not much has changed 30 years later as Belichick still out-smarts opponents on a near-weekly basis. But on Sunday, Doug Pederson matched him with a game plan for the ages. It takes a certain boldness to cut the Patriots down to size and Pederson certainly had the creative juices flowing Sunday in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Going for two in the first quarter was a little aggressive but nearly everything else Pederson touched turned to gold, including the show-stopping trick play known as the Philly Special. Tom Brady threw for more yards but Nick Foles showed he had better hands, hauling in a one-yard touchdown pass from backup tight end Trey Burton on fourth-and-goal late in the first half. That came less than a quarter after Brady dropped a third-down pass from Danny Amendola.
The Philly Special was one of two fourth-down conversions for the Eagles, who also cashed in on fourth-and-one from their own 45 with 5:32 remaining in the fourth quarter. That’s when Zach Ertz put on his hero cape for a leaping two-yard catch over nickel safety Duron Harmon. After extending the drive with his clutch first down, Ertz capped it with a go-ahead touchdown off an 11-yard strike from the eventual Super Bowl MVP, Nick Foles. Brandon Graham then strip-sacked Brady on the following drive, putting the Eagles in field goal range with 2:09 remaining. Graham’s takedown of Brady was the game’s lone sack. It also dashed any hopes of a comeback for New England, though Brady still managed to make things interesting in the final minute. Eagles fans could finally breathe once Brady’s last-second heave from midfield harmlessly hit the turf.
In last week’s Super Bowl rundown, I characterized the Patriots as a “bend don’t break” defense. On Sunday, there wasn’t much bending—just breaking. The Patriots yielded an embarrassing 538 yards while also allowing Philadelphia to convert 10-of-16 third downs. Foles stole the show with his aerial pyrotechnics but LeGarrette Blount also played an important role, leading the backfield with 90 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Blount is far from a Hall of Famer but he’s quietly built a lasting legacy as a key contributor on three of the last four Super Bowl winners.
We knew coming in that defense wasn’t the Patriots’ strength. They were among the worst defensive teams in the league early in the year and nearly let Blake Bortles get the best of them in the AFC title game. New England brought little pressure in the Super Bowl, daring Foles to beat them with his arm. Just as Kyle Shanahan tanked in last year’s Super Bowl before heading to the Niners, outgoing DC Matt Patricia fell asleep at the wheel in his Patriots finale.
Of course, the biggest head-scratcher of all was the absence of Malcolm Butler, who was limited to a single snap (it came on special teams) in Sunday’s defeat. Butler was overcome by emotion during the national anthem and now we know the real reason for his tears. Belichick insisted that he sat Butler for “football reasons,” though others, including former teammate Brandon Browner, have speculated that the benching was due to an off-field incident. Butler isn’t Jalen Ramsey, but he’s an established NFL starter with a knack for making big plays. Without his interception against the Seahawks, the Patriots wouldn’t have won Super Bowl XLIX. Butler had to feel sick watching his replacement Eric Rowe get lit up by Alshon Jeffery for a quarter and a half before Stephon Gilmore was finally tasked with shadowing the Eagles’ best receiver.
Rowe could have been worse, but he was still a clear downgrade from Butler, who garnered All-Pro honors as recently as last season. New England is famously rigid when it comes to off-field offenses. The Pats sent Chandler Jones packing shortly after an incident involving synthetic marijuana while Brandon Spikes was kicked to the curb after police began investigating him for a hit-and-run. We don’t know what happened with Butler and, given the secretive nature of the Patriots, it’s entirely possible that we never will. But now that Butler (an impending free agent) has made his way into Belichick’s doghouse, it’s safe to assume the 27-year-old has played his final down as a New England Patriot.
Every game has a call or two that could go either way. The Patriots have caught more than a few breaks throughout their dynasty, but not Sunday. I was so confident that Corey Clement’s third-quarter touchdown would be overturned that I tweeted these exact words: “That’s coming back.” Very profound, I know. But just like my Super Bowl prediction, I was spectacularly wrong. The touchdown was upheld on review, though I’m still not convinced Clement had complete control of the football when his foot grazed the out-of-bounds line.
The other touchdown in question was Zach Ertz’s game-winner late in the fourth quarter. The catch was eerily similar to a play made by Jesse James against New England in Week 15, though unlike Ertz, James had his touchdown overturned. On replay, Ertz clearly had possession and made a football move before the ball touched the turf on his way to the end zone. That’s good enough for me, but many are still wondering what in the world constitutes a catch in today’s NFL. How could Ertz’s play be a touchdown if James’ wasn’t? I think it’s an important question and one that the NFL rules committee should address this offseason.
With the Lombardi Trophy now on its way to Philadelphia, it’s fair to wonder how much the Patriots—the greatest team of this current century—have left. Tom Brady gave one of the great all-time Super Bowl performances with a record 505 passing yards in Sunday’s loss, but he turns 41 in August and, if Seth Wickersham’s bombshell report has any substance to it, he’s not on the best terms with head coach Bill Belichick. Not to mention that his wife is actively recruiting friends to talk Brady out of playing another season. Both of New England’s coordinators have graduated to head-coaching jobs and oft-injured Rob Gronkowski is mulling retirement. Jimmy Garoppolo, drafted to be Brady’s successor, is the captain of his own ship in San Francisco.
Vegas has installed New England as the early favorite to win Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta and that doesn’t feel like a stretch. While retiring now would be the wise move for his long-term health—Chris Borland, Calvin Johnson, Jake Locker and Rashard Mendenhall all got out while they could—it’s hard to envision Gronkowski riding into the sunset. The 28-year-old still has $17 million left on his current contract and remains the league’s best tight end (if not the best of all-time) by a substantial margin. If Gronk comes back, along with Brady, Belichick and a healthy Julian Edelman, the Patriots should occupy their usual position atop the AFC standings. But will 2018 be the last hurrah? The Patriots are, without question, a franchise in flux.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, is well ahead of schedule. Two years ago, the Eagles were a 7-9 team coached by the likes of Chip Kelly. Now they’re the cream of the NFL crop and unlike the Patriots, who are nearing the end of their dynasty (famous last words, I know), it feels like the Eagles are just getting started. As brilliant as Foles was throughout the postseason, there’s no chance of him overtaking Carson Wentz for the starting job. Foles’ stock has never been higher, which makes him an appealing trade candidate should the Eagles pursue that option. He’d be a strong fallback for teams that miss the boat on Kirk Cousins, who could command up to $30 million annually in free agency. By comparison, Foles is due an eminently reasonable $4 million in 2018. Of course, the Eagles may be more inclined to retain Foles in case Wentz encounters any setbacks in his recovery from ACL surgery.
One guy I really feel for is Brandin Cooks. Justin Timberlake caused a bit of a stir last week by announcing, seemingly unprovoked, that his son would never play football. I didn’t think it was a great PR move (talk about biting the hand that feeds you) but after watching Cooks get leveled by Malcolm Jenkins on Sunday, you get where Timberlake is coming from. At least Jenkins’ hit appeared to be legal unlike Barry Church’s cheap shot on Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship Game. The league reported 281 concussions this season (that includes preseason games), a six-year high and a noticeable increase from last year’s 244. Even more troubling is that teams continue to botch the protocol on a near-weekly basis. The Tom Savage and Russell Wilson incidents immediately come to mind, but even Sunday the Patriots mishandled Patrick Chung’s head injury, letting him play another quarter before properly evaluating him. With concussions on the rise and teams still struggling to grasp the protocol, it’s no wonder players like Gronk are giving serious thought to early retirement.
But let’s end this on a high note. Chris Long, who has won back-to-back Super Bowls, donated his entire $1 million salary this season to charity including scholarships to students in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia as well as organizations promoting educational equality in Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis. Long has played for teams in all three cities. See, that’s a much better way to end the article.
For those of you still celebrating, the party continues with the Eagles’ championship parade Thursday in Philadelphia. Make sure to bring your dog mask.