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.
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 ) and the combined total of 74 points came within 1 point of the Super Bowl record (in Super Bowl XXIX  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.
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.
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.