There was 1:25 left in the first half. The Eagles held a modest 14-7 lead, but had second-and-ten on their own 47-yard line. With a pass rush coming from his right, quarterback Nick Foles took a couple of steps to his left. But there was more trouble coming from there as Everson Griffen came roaring unabated toward him. Before he was hit, Foles flung the ball up the left sideline in the general direction of Mack Hollins. And then Griffen buried him.
The blow looked worse than it was. Foles bounced right back up. That pass was not to be his last pass of the game.
But it would be his last incompletion.
To that point in the contest, Nicky’s numbers were modest. He was now 11 for 18 (61.11%), but for just 95 yards (just 8.64 yards per completed pass). Only 7 of those 11 completions had earned first downs, and he carried a 75.00 passer rating as he went to the turf. In short, he was Nick Foles.
But when he got back up off the turf, he was Joe Montana.
Foles in a Frenzy
On the next play, receiver Alshon Jeffery put a double-move on cornerback Terence Newman. Alshon veered slightly towards the middle of the field. Newman followed along, only to be surprised when Jeffery cut back underneath him and broke free down the right side-line. Foles was undergoing another very close call in the pocket as Griffen and Emmanuel Lamur almost got their hands on him. But Nick was slick enough to elude their grasp. He lofted an arching rainbow toward the goal line that Jeffery ran under, and suddenly Philly was up 21-7.
For Foles, it was the first of what would grow to be 15 consecutive pass completions – a streak that would take him through the rest of the game. Four of those final 15 completions went for 36 yards or more, and all fifteen together totaled 257 yards (an average of 17.13 yards per). Twelve of his final 15 completions went for first downs, including 3 for touchdowns.
Philadelphia cruised past the Vikings 38-7 (gamebook) to earn a berth in Sunday’s Super Bowl opposite Tom Brady and the Patriots. Foles’ impressive evening included going 10 of 11 on third down for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns (with 9 of his 10 completions gaining first downs), on his way to a 352-yard, 141.41 passer rating performance.
There is little I can say – even after studying the film – that can explain the greatest game of Nick Foles’ career. It was, essentially, four huge passes (totaling 172 yards) and a whole bunch of shorter passes (totaling 180 yards). He was 19 for 20 on passes that were less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage. He took what the Viking defense gave him, and took advantage of his deep opportunities when they arose.
Hearkening back to their Divisional Round game against New Orleans, perhaps this melt-down is more revealing of the state of the Viking defense at the close of the season than it is the skills of the Philadelphia offense. In the second halves of their last two games, the Vikings allowed Drew Brees and Nick Foles to complete 28 of 33 passes (84.85%) for 321 yards (9.73 yards per attempted pass). They allowed the two QBs to throw for 20 first downs, including 5 touchdowns. Minnesota failed to record a sack in either second half. The Saints (as you recall) almost came back from a 17-0 halftime deficit against the Vikings.
In retrospect, perhaps they should have played more basic man coverage. It was the most effective defense they threw at Foles the whole game. They rarely played zone against Nick (only 6 times) and they paid for that decision almost every time. Nick stung them for 5 completions in those six throws for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns. Blitzing Nicky was just as catastrophic. He completed 11 of the 12 passes he threw against the Viking blitzes (91.67%) for 157 yards (13.08 per attempted pass). Eight of the 11 completions went for first downs, including one for a touchdown – yielding a passer rating of 146.53 against the blitz.
But 16 different times, they simply challenged Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and the other Eagle receivers to win against man coverage, with no blitz to dilute the coverage. Nick was a good, but not remarkable 10 of 15 (66.67%) for 115 yards (7.67 per) with the only sack he endured on the evening. He threw no touchdown passes against this straight man coverage, and finished with an 89.58 passer rating against this defense.
But even had Minnesota played more man coverages – and even if they had continued successful – winning this game would have been difficult with only 7 points put on the board.
Keenum Fading as Well
If the performance by the one Cinderella quarterback (Foles) was astonishing, the performance of the other (Case Keenum) was less than surprising. A career backup, Keenum was tossed into the spotlight this season after Minnesota lost their first two quarterbacks to injuries. Behind a strong running game, an elite defense, and the emergence of rookie receiver Adam Thielen, Keenum had the year of his life.
But the question always lingered. What would happen if Minnesota ran into an opponent that would force Case to throw them to victory. That opponent was almost New Orleans in the Divisional Round. On his way to what would have been an uninspiring second half, Minnesota won the game on a last-second miracle pass from Keenum to Stefan Diggs (made possible by a missed tackle). He was last seen standing on the sidelines leading his home crowd in the “Skoal” chant. He was dressed in his pointy-hooded warm-up jacket, looking for all the world like a purple garden gnome.
Sunday in Philadelphia, the miracles ran out. Forced to throw 48 times, Case finished with 28 completions (58.33%) for just 271 yards (only 9.68 per completion). He did manage a touchdown pass, but also threw 2 interceptions. His passer rating on the evening was an exceedingly modest 63.80.
While Foles excelled on third down, Keenum was just 6 for 10 for 57 yards and an interception. Throw in his 0-for-2 on fourth down, and Keenum’s passer rating on third and fourth down was a miniscule 28.82.
Even worse – if such a thing were possible – was his adventures in the red zone, where Case completed only 2 of 10 passes for 15 yards with one interception – an uncommon 0.00 rating. He also fumbled away another red zone opportunity on a sack.
Well, there was only one glass slipper, after all. So it would have to strike midnight for one of them. It is perhaps unfair, but the truth is that the best season of Case Keenum’s career failed to truly answer the questions about him.
Turning Toward Sunday
As to Foles going forward, the same perception of Keenum applies to him. If someone (New England) can make Nick win the game with his arm, it would seem to diminish Philadelphia’s chances.
It is extremely hard to pick Philadelphia in the upcoming Super Bowl. Foles vs Brady seems – on the surface of it – an unconscionable mismatch. But understand this. Philadelphia was always more than just their quarterback. There are a lot of championship pieces on this Philadelphia team. Not the least of these is the coach. Philadelphia doesn’t get a lot of press for this, but they are an exceedingly well-coached team.
In New England – perhaps the best-coached team in recent memory – Philadelphia faces an enormous challenge. But Sunday evening, they will get their chance. In spite of the odds-makers, in spite of the Patriots’ mystique and overwhelming playoff experience – in spite of the disbelieving press – the Philadelphia Eagles will get their moment on the big stage with a chance to write their own ending to what has been something of a fairy-tale season.
And that, after all, is all that anyone could ask for.