Tag Archives: Nick Foles

Solving Nick Foles

While discussing the Rams’ victory yesterday, I made note of the impact of playoff emotion in the performance of the home teams in last weekend’s playoff games.  The Chiefs, the Rams and the Patriots all began their 2018-19 playoff runs with emotion-driven first halves that propelled them to victory.  Playoff emotion would be a palpable factor in the Division Round’s final game – although this game would serve up a variation on the theme.  This time the emotion would be present – at the start, anyway – on the visitor’s sideline.

In Week Eleven, the Philadelphia Eagles made their first visit to New Orleans.  The visit was less productive than they had hoped, as the Saints waltzed over and through them 48-7.  Now the Eagles – under the direction of their magical quarterback Nick Foles – were back in the Big Easy with a trip to the Championship Game on the line.  They vowed things would be different, and from the very first snap, they were.

With the first offensive opportunity, the Saints tested the Eagle secondary vertically.  Speed receiver Ted Ginn – who was injured when these teams met for the first time – went up the field, and quarterback Drew Breese rifled it out there.  But defensive back Cre’von Leblanc reached up and picked it off.

(As a side note, Breese would finish the first half with just 6 incompletions – four of them on pass attempts to Ginn, covered mostly by Leblanc).

Before the home crowd could digest the transpirings, Foles had lofted a 37-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews.  The Saints managed nothing on their second possession, and Foles promptly marched the Eagles 75 yards in 10 plays, leaping over the goal line himself for their second score.

As the dust of the first quarter settled, it was the sixth-seeded Eagles – the team that had been blown out on this very field not quite two months previous – the team who had advanced this far only because a last second field goal in Chicago the week before had hit the upright – was taking it to the top-seeded New Orleans Saints 14-0.  At that point in the contest, the Eagles had 151 total yards, 8 first downs, and 9:19 of possession.  The Saints had no yards, no first downs and 1:04 of possession.

Missed Opportunity

After the Saints punted on their third possession, the Eagles missed a huge opportunity to put a dagger in the hearts of the Saints and their fans.

The second quarter had just started.  Philadelphia faced second-and-nine from their own 48.  Against the cover-2 zone of the Saints, Matthews ran a deep cross – holding safety Vonn Bell toward the middle of the field, while tight end Zach Ertz surprised cornerback Marshon Lattimore by streaking up the left sideline.  With Ertz clearly open, a good pass would have opened up a 21-0 lead, and would probably have sent Philly on to Los Angeles.  I point out that this was just the type of pass that Foles had flawlessly delivered all throughout last year’s playoff run and in the first quarter of this game to Matthews.

But, in what would be a growing pattern though the rest of the contest, the Saints got just enough pass rush pressure.  This time it was Alex Okafor who just managed to get around left tackle Jason Peters quickly enough that Foles rushed the throw, hanging it just enough for Lattimore to run under it and intercept.

The Turning Point

Having barely survived what could certainly have been a game-clinching score, New Orleans coach Sean Payton knew his offense had to wake up and get his team back in the game.  The last thing his team needed right now was another three and out.

But that was exactly what he got.

When Mark Ingram’s dive over left guard resulted in no gain, the Saints were left to punt from their own 30 on fourth-and-one.  There were still almost 12 minutes left in the half.

Sometimes it is uncertain at exactly what point a team turns the tide in a game.  Some games pivot obviously and clearly on one single play.  In this game, that turning point was clear.

Backed deep in his own end, down by two touchdowns and facing fourth down, Payton rolled the dice on the season.  The punt was faked.  The snap went directly to up-back Taysom Hill who bulled his way through the middle of the Eagles punt return unit to earn the first down.  With that play, the New Orleans sideline – as well as the entire stadium – erupted.  From that moment, the game belonged to New Orleans.

On the next play, Brees hit Michael Thomas on a deep crossing route that went for 42 yards.  Seven plays later, Drew flipped a two-yard touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood, and the Saints were officially back in the game.

Footnote on Hill

Used at quarterback, tight end, and receiver as well as on special teams (where he had blocked a punt earlier this year to turn the tide of another game), Hill’s biggest impact on offense has been as a running quarterback.  As a receiver, he had caught 3 passes on the season for 4 yards.  As a passer, he had thrown 7 passes, completing just 3 – albeit for 64 yards.

In all this usage, Hill had never caught a touchdown pass or thrown a touchdown pass.  On consecutive plays in the third quarter, he almost did both.

There is 7:45 left in the third quarter.  The Saints – still trailing 14-10 – have first-and-ten on the Eagle 46-yard line.  Hill lines up wide right and run a go up the sideline, streaking into the end zone and behind the secondary.  But Brees’ pass is just underthrown enough that Avonte Maddox was able to get back and just get a hand on the pass, knocking it away.

Undeterred, Payton lined Hill up at quarterback on the next play, where he delivered a perfect 46-yard touchdown strike to running back Alvin Kamara – a play nullified by a holding penalty on Andrus Peat.

Well, maybe this week against the Rams?

The Drive

Those plays came in the middle of the most impressive drive that I have seen in quite some time.  With 13:22 left in the third quarter, and still leading by four points, the Eagles punted the ball away to New Orleans.  The next time the Eagle offense took the field – now trailing by three points – there was only 1:40 left in the quarter.  Over the 11:29 of game time in between those points, the Saints had put together an 18-play, 92-yard drive, culminating in a touchdown pass to Thomas.  The drive highlighted another interesting variation on the trend established in the other Divisional Round games.

The Chiefs, Rams and Patriots had all had dominating halves in their victories.  In their case, those had all been the first half.  The Saints put together a half just as dominating as any of those teams – they just did it in the second half.

Over the last thirty minutes of this contest, the Saints racked up 15 first downs (to only 4 by Philadelphia) and 226 total yards (to just 51 by the Eagles).  They never punted – converting 6 of 8 third downs.

They held the ball for 22:32 of the final thirty minutes, running on 19 of their final 38 snaps.  Behind Ingram and Kamara, they pounded the Eagles for 96 yards in the half.  During the season, Philadelphia had ranked seventh in the NFL in stopping the run, allowing an average of just 96.9 yards per game on the ground.

And when they decided to throw it, Breese completed 15 of 19 (78.9%) for 130 yards and the touchdown to Thomas.

They didn’t light up the scoreboard like those other teams, but in its own way this victory was just as impressive.

But the clock-grinding offense was just one factor in the impressive second half.  At the end of the day, this team would still have to find a way to stop Nick Foles and his magic carpet ride.

The Pass Defense Finds Answers for Foles

In a sense, this game was a microcosm of the Saints’ pass defense this season.

As the 2018 season dawned, the Saints were something of a mess on pass defense.  Without a real concept, and with little feel for what they do well, they were consistently sliced up by opposing passing attacks.  The fact that they won seven of their first eight had more to do with an impressive offensive unit outscoring its opponents.

The first time they faced the Rams this season, LA quarterback Jared Goff threw for 391 yards and 3 touchdowns (in a 45-35 Saints win).  Eight games into the season, New Orleans had allowed at least 20 points in five game, giving 30 or more three times.

The first 294 passes thrown against them had resulted in 206 completions (70.1%) for 2601 yards – 8.85 yards per attempted pass, and 12.6 yards per pass completion. Opposing passers had flung 18 touchdown passes against them in just 8 games, while the Saint defenders had managed just 4 interceptions.  The Saints exited that game with the Rams with a horrific passer rating against of 112.1.  For the season.

But change was coming.

The first Ram game was Eli Apple’s second game with the Saints.  The story of the evolution of the Saints defense is tied to the acquisition of Apple, and his growing comfort level in the New Orleans secondary.  From shaky ex-Giant to solidifying presence, Apple hasn’t been the only change in the Saint secondary.  But he has been one of the most important.

Since the first Rams’ game, the Saint secondary has improved from one of football’s worst, to one of it’s best.  Over the 8 games preceding Sunday’s game against the Eagles, New Orleans had allowed just 178 completions in 279 passes (63.8%).  These completions have resulted in just 2022 yards (7.25 per pass and 11.4 per completion).  The touchdown-to-interception ratio has also become much more competitive at 12-8.  The second-half passer rating against is an impressive 87.7

This game followed a similar pattern.

In the two nearly flawless first drives, Nick Foles was the Nick Foles of last year’s playoffs.  Up until the throw that was intercepted, Nick had completed 9 of his first 10 passes for 127 yards and the Matthews touchdown.  His passer rating at that point was 152.1.

Beginning with that first interception from Lattimore (and, yes, there would be another), Foles completed just 9 of his last 21 passes (42.9%) for just 74 yards.  He would throw no more touchdown passes (the Eagles would not score again) and would end the day with 2 interceptions.  After his first 10 passes, his rating plummeted to 12.9.

After racking up 151 total yards and 8 first downs on those first two drives, Philly managed just 94 yards and 6 first downs the rest of the way.  After starting 2-for-2 on third down, the Foles third-down magic evaporated.  Philadelphia ended their season coming up short on their last 5 third-down attempts.

Much of the answer was the New Orleans offense.  With the Eagles getting only 7:28 of clock time in the second half, it was difficult for them to sustain any rhythm.  But even when they had their opportunities, the Saints’ defense found answers.

Covering the Receivers

If there was one constant after the first quarter it was the inability of the Eagle receivers to gain separation.  This actually happened from time to time during the season last year, and also earlier this year.  While the combo of Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor came up huge in last year’s playoffs, they have had frequent games where they have mostly disappeared.  In the second half of Sunday’s playoff game, Jeffery caught 2 of 5 thrown to him for 8 yards.  The only pass thrown in Agholor’s direction bounced incomplete.

After trying varying schemes and matchups early in the game, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen settled on a mostly simple scheme.  Man coverage with one or two safeties ready to help over the top.  For the most part, it was Lattimore accompanying Jeffery, while Apple occupied Agholor and P.J. Williams supervised Matthews or Tate.  While Foles’ performance wasn’t up to last year’s standards, in fairness he frequently had no place to go with the ball.

The trouble with man coverages, of course, is what to do with Zach Ertz.  Allen’s answer was a composite answer, with almost everyone else in the line backing corps and secondary taking a turn at covering Zach.  Sometimes – though not as often as you might have expected – Ertz saw double coverage.  Of the varying defenders assigned to him, Ertz may have seen linebacker Alex Anzalone and safety Vonn Bell more than others, but it was almost always someone different.  In short, it took a village.

On the surface, this wouldn’t seem like an awe-inspiring plan.  But it held up for two reasons.  First, when Foles saw his receivers in man coverage, his first looks were for Jeffery and Agholor down the field.  Second, the Saints – although they never sacked Foles – managed just enough pressure to disrupt him before he could cycle down to Ertz. 

When he did, he found opportunity.  Zach caught all three passes thrown to him in the second half for 35 yards.  Two of those receptions went for 16 and 17 yards – Philadelphia’s only second half plays to cover at least ten yards.

But if lack of open receivers was Nickys’ principle problem, it wasn’t his only problem.

Discomfort in the Pocket

One of the under-remembered aspects of last year’s playoff run was the pass protection afforded Nick Foles.  Almost all of those devastating deep passes that he delivered came from a very clean pocket.  Allen, of course realized that pressuring Nick would help his cause.  That, of course, would not be easy against the Eagles’ able offensive line, and became harder when New Orleans lost their second best pass rusher Sheldon Rankins for the rest of the season during Philly’s second offensive drive.

But Nick Foles isn’t one of those dangerous quarterbacks who gets outside the pocket and causes trouble with improvisation.  We have talked already this playoff season about young quarterbacks who have difficulty winning the game from the pocket.  The other side of that coin is a guy like Foles who does his work from the safety of the pocket and is less comfortable on the move.  Sometimes it only takes a suggestion of pressure to make him feel uncomfortable and throw him off his game.

Even without Rankins – and without ever sacking Nick – New Orleans was consistently successful in tightening the pocket around him and not allowing him the full extension of his long arms.  Additionally, the Saints’ defenders increasingly played tighter and tighter on the Eagle receivers.  Knowing that Foles likes to get the ball out quickly, they took away his easy first reads and forced him into quicker decisions than he was comfortable with.  And with Rankins unavailable, most of the heavy lifting would fall to star defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Matched against one of the top offensive tackles in the league in Lane Johnson, Jordan (with no sacks and one pass batted down) wasn’t as disruptive as he’s been in other games.  On Sunday, he was just enough.

On second-and-ten from his own 40, with 14:55 left game and trailing by three, Nick had Jeffery open up the right sideline.  But Jordan was pushing both Johnson and Stefen Wisniewski back into the pocket, and Foles opted to check down to Darren Sproles for a 2-yard gain.

On the very next play, Golden Tate was running away from P.J. Williams on a deep cross.  But Jordan was pushing Johnson back into the backfield again.  He flushed Foles from the pocket almost into the arms of David Onyemata.  Nick got the pass off, but not accurately.

Now there is 2:58 left in the Eagle season, and they are on their own 42 down by six.  Saints back in cover-2.  Jordan was coming around his right side, flushing him up into Tyeler Davison – who was pushing center Jason Kelce back into Foles’ face.  Tate was barely open in a tight window, but Nick couldn’t get a good throw off.

It was like this most of the night for Nick.

Where Were the Hot Routes?

The Saints don’t blitz much – they only did so a handful of times on Sunday.  But the few times they did they were more disruptive than they should have been.  There were only a couple of times that they actually came free against Nick, but, surprisingly, the Eagles didn’t have anyone running short routes (hot routes) to beat the blitz.

This caused an incompletion to Jeffery on the first play of the last quarter when P.J. Williams wasn’t picked up.  Again, on third-and-eight with 8:50 left in the game, Anzalone came untouched on the blitz and Foles rushed a throw in Matthews’ general direction.

There were other occasions when the blitz was picked up, but Foles still rushed his decision making process.

The Endgame

For all of this, Philadelphia still had that last shot.  One tick before the two minute warning, sitting on the Saints 27, but needing the touchdown, the Eagles’ run as defending world champions ended on a simple curl route against a soft cover-two and a well thrown pass that slipped through the grasp of Jeffery into the hands of Lattimore.  And with that, New Orleans secured its 20-14 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Marshon Lattimore played and excellent game.  He finished, ironically enough, with interceptions on two of his least impressive moments.  His first came on an underthrown pass to a receiver who was open behind him.  His last came as he was simply sitting in his zone minding his own business when the ball fluttered in his direction.

All talk of strategy aside, sometimes these things come down to the bounce of a ball.

And Now the Rams

So now, the Saints get the Rams with a Super Bowl trip on the line.  The world, I think, expects a shootout similar to the earlier game.  I am unconvinced.  The Saints still have one of football’s better run defenses, and they have actually played excellent pass defense over the second half of the season.

For their part the Rams are coming off, arguably, their best defensive game of the season – and a game in which they ran for 273 yards, to boot.  Additionally, both of these teams are now familiar with each other’s offense.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not predicting a 3-0 game won on a last second 50-yard field goal.  But my feeling is that the defenses on both sides will make points more hard earned this time around.

On Sunday afternoon, we’ll find out.

Super Bowl LII: The Last Word

For more than three hours on the evening of February second, all of America (or at least the football-watching portion of that population) tuned into Super Bowl LII looking for the precise moment that the Philadelphia’s Eagles’ Cinderella ride would turn back into a pumpkin.

Even after the Eagles – history’s most dis-respected number one seed – had opened up a 15-3 lead on the New England Patriots just 21 minutes into the contest, the haters remained unconvinced.  We had all seen this film before.

With 5:15 left before the end of the half, Nick Foles’ long toss up the right sideline deflected into the hands of New England’s Duron Harmon for the game’s first turnover.  Surely that would change the momentum of the game.  But after New England went 90 yards for a touchdown following the interception, Philadelphia answered with a touchdown of their own before the half and went into the locker room with a ten-point lead.

Like the monster in all of the slasher films, the defending champions from New England refused to die.  They opened the second half with touchdowns on three consecutive drives, and finally – with 9:22 left in the game – pushed ahead 33-32.  Surely this would finally be the end of the under-dog Eagles.

This was, after all, the same Patriot team that overcame a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl just the year before, and just two weeks earlier had overturned an 11-point deficit against Jacksonville to qualify for this year’s big game.  It seemed almost expected that Philly’s 12-point lead would at some point evaporate.

But on this evening the under-appreciated Eagles slew the dragon from Boston by doing the one thing that the Falcons (in Super Bowl LI) and the Jaguars (in this year’s AFC Championship Game) were unable to do.

They kept scoring.

In last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons were done scoring at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter.  After having three earlier touchdown drives of at least 62 yards, the Falcons totaled just 44 yards (and 3 first downs) on their last 4 possessions.  Jacksonville scored its last touchdown of the game at 7:06 of the second quarter.  They had moved for 158 yards and 11 first downs in their back-to-back touchdown drives.  Over their final 9 possessions of the game, the Jaguars managed just two field goals, 193 yards and 9 first downs.

Doug Pederson’s offense never relented.  Every time the Patriots surged back into the game, the Eagles responded.  They ended the Super Bowl by scoring on all of their last 5 possessions following the interception to carry off a 41-33 victory (gamebook).

Reversing the Trend

There was an era not too long ago when the Super Bowl was traditionally one of the dullest contests of the season.  Beginning with the Raiders 38-9 thumping of the Redskins back in Super Bowl XVIII (18), all of the next 5 Super Bowls would be decided by at least 19 points, with four of the five being decided by 22 points or more.  The average margin of victory in those five Super Bowls was 27.6 points.  Two Super Bowls after the last of those (Washington’s 42-10 pummeling of Denver), the San Francisco 49ers authored the most lopsided victory in Super Bowl history – a 55-10 rout also at the expense of the Broncos.  It was an era where advertisers pushed to get their commercials aired in the first quarter as a large percentage of the viewing population had moved on to something else long before halftime.  From Dallas’ 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI (6), through Tampa Bay’s 48-21 conquest of Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII (37), only 9 of 32 contests were decided by one score or less, and the average margin of victory was a disappointing 16.5 points.

But, beginning with New England’s tense 32-29 victory over Carolina that next season, the dynamic has decidedly changed.  Ten of the last fifteen have been one score games – including this one, which ended with Tom Brady throwing into the end zone as time expired.

And while the recent decade has brought us more competitive contests, the last three have been nothing short of transcendent.  Three seasons ago, the Super Bowl brought us Peyton Manning’s farewell.  One of the great presence’s in recent football history, Peyton went out a champion, leading Denver to a 24-10 decision over Carolina.  Last season, of course, Brady and the Patriots authored one of the great comebacks of all-time.

And two weeks ago the no-chance Eagles fashioned a stunning upset in a game that set a hatful of Super Bowl offensive records. League-wide all teams averaged 334.1 yards per game.  The Eagles racked up 323 yards and the Patriots managed 350 yards.

At the half.

Offense Galore

During the entertaining first half, the two teams combined for 673 yards on 72 plays – a breath-taking 9.3 yards per play.  By about the mid-point of the third quarter the two teams had set the Super Bowl record for combined yardage.  They would finish the affair with 1151 total yards and 9 combined touchdowns.  Nine different players ended with a run or a catch of at least 20 yards.  Four of them had pass catches of over 40 yards.

Together, the Eagles and Patriots were 15 for 26 on third down (.577), including 8 of 12 (.667) in the second half.  They were also 3-for-4 on fourth down.  The 33 points scored by New England were the most ever by a losing team in a Super Bowl (supplanting the 49ers, who scored 31 points in losing Super Bowl XLVII [48]) and the combined total of 74 points came within 1 point of the Super Bowl record (in Super Bowl XXIX [29] the 49ers outscored the San Diego Chargers 49-26).  Considering that this game saw two missed extra-points, a missed field goal, and two failed two-point conversions, that record held by the slimmest combination of circumstances imaginable.

The Defining Moment of Super Bowl LII

The contest will forever be remembered for the touchdown that the Eagles scored on fourth-and-goal with 38 seconds left in the first half.  Leading by just three points, and with New England set to receive the second-half kickoff, Philadelphia simply could not afford to come away from this opportunity without points.  So, even the decision to go for the touchdown here was risky.  And for Pederson to reach deep into his bag of tricks for the tight-end option pass to the quarterback ranks as one of the gutsiest calls in the now-long history of the Super Bowl.  The potential for disaster here was huge.  With an inexperienced passer throwing to the flat on the goal line, any of the numerous ways that play could have backfired would almost certainly have cost Philly the game.

But the play didn’t backfire.  Trey Burton threw an accurate pass, and Foles made the catch in the end zone.

It will be remembered by many as the critical play of the game.  But here’s the thing.  Even in spite of this highlight-reel play, the Eagles still found themselves trailing with nine minutes left in the season.  The actual play of the game – not so much highlight reel stuff – might well have been Philadelphia’s other fourth-down play.

That the Eagles trailed by one with 9:22 to go was the least of their concerns.  The raspberry seed in their collective wisdom tooth was the Patriot offense that they had not yet managed to stop.  In nine possessions to that point of the game, New England had managed at least 1 first down in all of them, and 2 or more in 7 of the 9.  Six of the nine had covered at least 74 yards, and eight of them accounted for at least 48 yards.  The nine had resulted in 4 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 1 missed field goal, 1 missed fourth-down play, and the end of the first half.  Every drive but one to this point had ended in Philadelphia territory – and the one that didn’t made it to the 50-yard line.  Philadelphia needed to find some way to keep this offense off the scoreboard for the rest of the game.

So, as the Eagles lined up along their own 25-yard line with those 9:22 to go, more than just the score to put them back in front, Philadelphia needed to kill the clock.  And when a third-and-one screen pass to Torrey Smith ended shy of first-down yardage, the Eagles’ season hung in the balance.

There was still 5:39 left in the game.  With the fourth-and-one, Philadelphia sat on their own 45-yard line.  A punt here was an open invitation for New England to put an exclamation point on their comeback.  But a failed fourth-down play would give the Patriots a short field and a golden opportunity for the game-clinching score.  In spite of the fact that Philadelphia ran for 164 yards this day, they opted for a pass, risking everything on the arm and the judgement of the much maligned Nick Foles.

Nicky Who?

As recently as 2015, Nick was a sometimes starter for the St Louis Rams, fashioning a 4-7 record as a starter with an exceedingly modest 69.0 passer rating.  He spent 2016 sitting on the bench in Kansas City, and had much the same function in Philadelphia for most of this year.

And now, everything depended on him.

In a 3-tight-end set, Foles had Zach Ertz tight to the right side, and Brent Celek and Burton lined up tight to the left.  Ertz and Celek ran a simple shallow cross against New England’s man coverage.  Devin McCourty – in coverage on Ertz – ran headlong into Celek and Patrick Chung – who had coverage on Celek.  And now there was just Ertz roaming completely free underneath.  The pressure on Foles was quick.  Trey Flowers slipped immediately inside tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to flush Foles to his left, and Kyle Van Noy stunted around Vaitai’s back to hit Nicky just after he released the ball.  The throw was a little high, but Zach pulled it down.  And the Eagle drive continued.

That play was the lynch-pin of a devastating 14-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 7:01 from the remaining game-clock.  Foles connected twice more with Ertz for third-down conversions – including the 11-yard touchdown pass (on third-and-7) that concluded the drive.  McCourty had Zach in man coverage on that play as well, but Devin stumbled just slightly as Zach made his break to the inside, creating the opening that led to the game-clinching touchdown.

Coming off the game of his life against Minnesota, Nick Foles was very good again against New England.  He finished 28-of-43 (65.12%) for 373 yards, 3 touchdowns and the interception.  His rating against the Patriots overall was a strong 106.06.  But once again, he was at his very best on third down.

Against the Vikings, he completed 10-of-11 on third down for 159 yards and 9 first downs (including 2 touchdowns).  On third-down against the Patriots, Nicky completed 11 of 14 for 169 yards – again for 9 first downs and 2 touchdowns. Thus Nick Foles finished the last two games of the season completing 21 of 25 passes (84%) for 328 yards, 18 first downs and 4 touchdowns on third down – a combined 158.33 rating.

Of all the remarkable numbers amassed by Foles in his surprising Super Bowl run, his dominance on third down are both the most amazing and the most vital.

He also finished the game on a hot streak comparable to the way he finished up the Vikings.  Beginning with his 22-yard touchdown toss to Corey Clement about midway through the third, Nicky finished 13 for his last 16 (81.25%) – albeit for just 127 yards (9.77 per completion) – and 2 touchdowns.  His passer rating reached 139.32 as he finished the game.

Coming down the stretch, Nick began to look more and more for Nelson Agholor – who was matched mostly against Chung.  Patrick – one of the defensive heroes for the Patriots during the playoff run – had a tough Super Bowl that included being knocked out of the game twice.

Five of Foles’ last 16 passes went in Agholor’s direction, with Nelson catching all five for 54 yards and 4 first downs.

Defensive Measures

As did Minnesota, New England decided to play man coverage against the Eagle receivers and brought frequent pressure.  Nick got man coverage on 79% of his drop-backs, including being blitzed 37% of the time.  Foles chewed up the Patriot blitz to the tune of 11 of 16 (68.75%) for 126 yards and 1 touchdown (a 113.02 passer rating).  The Patriots did a little better when they played man and didn’t blitz (a 109.49 rating on 11 of 18 passing for 184 yards, 2 touchdowns and the interception).

Best of all against Foles may have been the zone defenses the Patriots threw at him, though they went to zone too infrequently to make much of a judgement.  Foles was 6 of 9 against the New England zones, but for just 63 yards and 2 first downs.

When they could pressure Foles, they did very well against him. Credit to the Eagle offensive line that Nick only threw 11 passes under duress (about a fourth of his attempts).  He completed only 3 of those passes for just 9 yards.  All three of those completions came in that pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown drive.  Foles was also just 4 for 11 when they could flush him out of the pocket. Again, this was something New England couldn’t do enough of.

Does Foles Have an Encore In Him?

The great post-season mystery now becomes what happens with Nick Foles?  With emerging superstar Carson Wentz set to return, this playoff run was essentially an audition for Foles.  Have these last three games convinced anyone that Nicky is their quarterback of the future?  Or is it more likely – given his recent performance in St Louis – that this playoff run had more to do with the team around him?

Let me say this for Foles.  During the playoff run, he made excellent decisions and threw a very catchable ball.  He especially has a nice touch on deep passes.  In all this, though, I don’t think I’m completely convinced Nicky is the answer as anyone’s starter.   And even after all this, I’m not sure that everyone understands what was truly remarkable about Foles, the Eagles, and their 2017 playoff run.

Put the tape back in and watch the first possession of the game.  Watch Foles coolly and confidently run the Eagle offense.  In the eyes of the rest of the world, Nick Foles had everything to prove.  But that’s not what you saw two weeks ago.  You saw a backup quarterback playing in the Super Bowl with absolutely nothing to prove – to himself or anyone else.  That is because his entire team, from owner down to ball boy, had already placed their entire confidence in him.  Nick Foles was their quarterback.  The defense didn’t put extra pressure on themselves. Neither did the offensive line.  The coaches made no effort to hide their quarterback.  He threw 11 times in the 16 plays of Philadelphia’s first two drives (a field goal and a touchdown) and threw on 10 of the 14 plays of the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

Without exception, everyone in the Eagle locker room firmly believed that Foles would deliver a starting quarterback effort that evening – and with 373 passing yards, 3 touchdown passes tossed – and one caught, Nicky Foles did just that.

Imagine for a moment how difficult that is.  Imagine All-Pro defensive lineman Fletcher Cox standing on the sideline watching Wentz not get up after scoring that touchdown against the Rams.  Imagine what must have been going through his head.  And Jason Kelce’s.  And Zach Ertz’.  And coach Pederson’s.  In the pit of your stomach, how can you not feel that your season had just ended?  Remember, Carson Wentz was not just their starting quarterback.  He was the soul of the team.  He was the piece that made the whole machine go.  If you had been watching the NFL season up to that point, you would have tabbed Carson Wentz as one of the handful of irreplaceable players.  Every other member of the Eagle team must have felt his loss as a debilitating punch to the gut.

And then somewhere in between that devastating moment and the time the Eagles took the field for their first playoff game that most under-appreciated element of professional sports took over.  The Eagle locker room healed itself.  They embraced Nicky Foles, and endowed him with their complete trust and confidence.  This wasn’t a pretend “oh, sure, we’re all behind you” confidence.  Nicky Foles became – for a few dynamic weeks – the sum of the faith of his team.

Even should the Eagles and Wentz go on to experience success on the level of the Patriots, this first Super Bowl win (and the under-dog status that they carried into it) will always be memorable to them.  I’m not sure, though, history will forever remember this aspect of this remarkable achievement.

Oh, Yes . . .

Speaking of history, the quarterback on the other end of this entertaining contest has been involved in a bit of it himself.

The Eagles managed to hold Tom Brady and the Patriot offense to field goal attempts in three of their first four possessions by bringing fairly consistent pressure.  But as New England’s offensive line got their feet set under them, Brady became Brady again.

Beginning with a 25-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on the second play of the third quarter, and continuing until Brady threw the touchdown pass to Gronkowski that put New England ahead in the fourth, Brady completed 12 out of 14 passes for 181 yards and all three touchdowns.  He worked with great frequency and effectiveness to the left side, where Ronald Darby was a frequent target.  Tom completed 12 of 14 passes (85.71%) to the offensive left side of the formation for 215 yards (15.36 yards per attempt) and 1 touchdown – a 142.56 rating.  In fact, subtract two spikes to stop the clock and his last 7 passes against rather extreme zone defenses, and Brady was 25 of 39 (64.1%) for 465 yards (18.6 yards per completion) with the 3 touchdowns – a 130.82 passer rating.

Not much that Philly tried against Tom succeeded. The Eagles went to predominantly man coverages – doing so on 70% of Brady’s pass attempts (other than the spikes or the prevents).  They blitzed less often than New England (only 20% of the time), but with no better results.  Tom went 6 for 8 for 111 yards against the Eagle blitzes.  But when they played man without the blitz, things went even worse.  Brady completed only 11 of 20 passes against those man coverages (55%), but for 215 yards (19.55 yards per completion) and 2 of his touchdowns – a 126.04 rating.  The Eagles didn’t play much zone – and just as well.  Tom was 8 of 11 (72.73%) when they did, for 139 yards (12.64 per attempted pass) and the other touchdown – a 145.08 passer rating.

Frankly, when Brady and the offense got the ball back, trailing by 5 with 2:21 left and holding one time out, I thought – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone – that the Patriots would add one more improbable comeback to their swelling playoff lore.

Not What You Might Have Expected

But then the unusual happened.  Instead of the Patriots making that clutch fourth-quarter, game-deciding play, it was the Eagles making it against them.  In a game that featured just one punt and one sack, it was the latter that finally decided matters.  With New England facing a second-and-2 on their own 33, Brandon Graham surged underneath Patriot guard Shaq Mason and closed quickly enough on Brady that he hit the ball as Tom was raising it for a pass.

For a small eternity the football – and the season – bounced freely on the turf, to be gathered in in the next heartbeat by Eagle defensive end Derek Barnett.  The Eagles had the ball on the Patriot 31 with just 2:09 left.

This would be the only time of the game that the Eagles would go conservative – and it almost cost them.  Three running plays gained 4 yards.  Jake Elliot finished the one minute-four second drive with the field goal that gave us the final score, and when New England finally got the ball back for their desperation drive, there was only 58 seconds left in the season – and the Patriots had 91 yards to cover.

And even at that, they were still throwing into the end zone as time expired.

A Warning Note

Among the more glamourous offensive records set in Super Bowl LII was the passing yardage record.  Brady became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl to throw for 500 yards in a game (505 to be exact).  Whose record did he break?  Why his own, of course.  The year before in Super Bowl LI Brady had thrown for 466 yards.  Across all of football this year, the average quarterback threw for about 3800 yards for the 16-game season.  In the last two Super Bowls, Brady has thrown for 971.

Impressive? Of course.  But the reason behind the record is even more instructive.  In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots ran 72 offensive plays.  They trailed in every one of them.  They didn’t have so much as one offensive snap where they were at least tied in the game.  They trailed by 10 points or more in 24 of those plays.

Two weeks earlier against Jacksonville, New England held the ball for 61 offensive plays.  They trailed in 42 of those – finding themselves down by ten points or more in 22 of them.  In last year’s Super Bowl, they trailed in 67 of 93 plays, finding themselves at least ten points behind in 53 of them.

So, during their last two Super Bowl games and their last AFC Championship game, New England has run a total of 226 plays.  They have been behind 80% of the time (181 plays) and trailed by at least 10 points almost half of the time (99 plays – 43.8%).  Brady – of necessity – has thrown 110 passes in his last two Super Bowls.

Taking nothing away from the Falcons, Jaguars or Eagles, the Patriots have been having an increasingly difficult time matching their opponent’s emotion in these big games.  Brady reported to Al Michales that he didn’t even feel nervous at the start of this – his eighth Super Bowl.  In particular, during the start of the Atlanta game, the Patriots looked almost like they were standing still.

There are already a sizeable number of mysteries that the 2018 season will answer.  The 2017 season saw a lot of upheaval.  Long-time doormats in Jacksonville, Tennessee, Buffalo, Los Angeles (and, yes, Philadelphia) all earned playoff bids.  Are these teams on the rise? Or one year wonders?  Meanwhile playoff mainstays in Green Bay, Dallas and Seattle watched from home.  Are they franchises in decline?  Or were they mostly unlucky?  What does the future hold for marquee quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith – not to mention backups turned into heroes Nick Foles and Case Keenum?

As compelling as any of these mysteries is what we will see from the 2018 version of the New England Patriots.  How they respond to this surprising loss will be one of the stories to follow – and one of the keys to the direction the franchise is heading.

As for the Eagles – who jumped from 7-9 in 2016 to world champions this year – they will now be challenged with handling success.  Staying on top is always harder than getting there.

It all sets up for a fascinating 2018.

Yes, Actually, That Will Be Nick Foles in the Super Bowl

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.

Vikings Fading

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.