CHICAGO — “Nah, that’s just what it is. If you follow the Philadelphia Eagles, if you follow our story, if you follow this whole season, that’s who we are.”
In the visiting team locker room of Soldier Field, Timmy Jernigan describes how the underdog mentality has persisted in Philadelphia, even for the defending Super Bowl Champions. He’s dressed head to toe in a camo jumpsuit that would only be effective against a rainbow. A watch peeks out from underneath his cuff: it’s probably made of gold underneath all the diamonds.
“Every week, in and out — even before the season got here! They was already saying we were gonna be a four, five loss team before the season even started. So ain’t nobody on our side. It’s us. We feel like it’s us versus everybody. Point blank.”
Three things matter about that sentiment. It’s shared by every player in the locker room. It’s not necessarily accurate. And the truth of it doesn’t matter at all: the Philadelphia Eagles are enough for themselves.
It is one thing to be impervious to opponent, agnostic of circumstance; it is another to grow stronger as the odds tilt further away from your favor. Ever feared is the pressure to repeat, which has broken many a Super Bowl champion — but it only adds fuel to a Philadelphia fire that burns almost exclusively in spite. In spite of point spreads, in spite of injuries, in spite of the differences from last season that we all thought would matter. A weakened pass rush, ragtag running backs, an offensive coordinator beleaguered. As long as it counts against the Eagles, it counts for them in the end.
That spirit of David, a trail of slain Goliaths behind him as he searches for a yet bigger giant to fell, roars louder in nobody than in quarterback Nick Foles’ meekness. In the past two seasons, Nick Foles has played in seven games that were essentially playoff elimination games — he is undefeated and unassuming. A calm baritone at the podium, Foles shifts his weight and checks his laces as another question comes his way.
“No, not really that.” Foles was asked if he draws confidence from the feeling that he’s been there before, when he finds himself at the foot of another insurmountable peak. “What I learned on those stages is how to calm myself in a chaotic moment. When, from the outside world, there’s a ton of pressure, [I] just really simplify it in my head, getting in the huddle, looking at the guys I trust. [I] know that it’s all on the line for us, and we’re gonna get the job done.
It’s just belief in one another.”
Is it that simple? Perhaps it is. If belief in one another, the brotherhood forged over a season’s worth of disappointment and resilience, wins games in the fourth quarter — as Nick Foles claims it does — then no wonder this 3rd-round journeyman, this sheepish enigma of a man continues to spit in the face of regression and reason. All he can talk about is how the year builds relationships and fosters faith; how he knows someone will step up for every interception he throws; how blessed he is to wear this jersey at least one more week.
The Eagles are a team of underdogs, the next round of playoffs and week of media uncertainty the forces that conspire against them; but Nick Foles alone staves off another inevitability, a personal battle. This offseason, he will again wade out into the waters of NFL franchises, looking for ground as solid and tenable as that on which he built his home, his church, his acropolis in Philadelphia. With every win, the expiring Nick Foles that wears the number 9 in midnight green fends off the next Nick Foles, wearing different colors and a different number, again uncertain as to his role and his future.
That is the battle that emboldens Foles in the ultimate moments, the inflection points. With the game on the line, the football mind looks for a gamer like Baker Mayfield, a magician like Aaron Rodgers, a champion like Tom Brady; yet it cannot doubt Nick Foles. Like an eclipse, he’s a convergence of those three bodies — champion, magician, gamer — but only for a certain, splendid moment. Who could you have selected over Nick Foles, who became the best passer in playoff history on the same day he extended his career-long streak of games with an interception? Who could you have explained in favor over the inexplicable?
Who could you have chosen to coach these Philadelphia Eagles, these rowdy underdogs, over Doug Pederson? The fearless iteration of Andy Reid’s genius, the consolation prize after since-expunged Ben McAdoo, the last man standing atop a hill of 2016 head coaching hires. Pederson tells his team in the locker room after the Bears win: “You were built for this” — he may well be referring to himself. Six months ago, Pederson told his team to embrace the target, welcome the compulsion to repeat, the title they had to defend. They seemed to be shaking off the underdog mentality, embracing their place at the summit — instead, they were once again stacking odds against themselves, mustering the pressure that would lead to their explosive rise.
It was Pederson’s message in press conferences after the Titans loss, the Panthers loss, the Cowboys loss: this team is just a few plays away. He preached execution and spurned missed opportunities — like the dropped interception in the end zone from Tre Sullivan, the two Foles picks in scoring territory, or the post-play penalty from Michael Bennett that extended an eventual scoring drive for the Bears. For a team that seemed to be giving away its magic, surrendering close drives and close games en route to a failed NFC East repeat, Doug never wavered on his message: we just have to finish.
The ball finally did bounce Philadelphia’s way: three times on Sunday night. Once off the crossbar, once off the upright, and once off Treyvon Hester’s extended finger. In a game in which they entrenched in hostile territory, out-gained, and without a turnover, they were again saved by some divine confluence of justs: the ball was tipped just enough, it ricocheted just so, and the Eagles just scraped by.
But it doesn’t feel like the Eagles are a team that snuck in, a playoff imposter. Rather those three bounces, that double-doink miss of a millennia, seemingly sealed Philadelphia’s invincibility. The adrenaline junkie feels the fullness of life with every brush against death; Philadelphia has never seemed stronger because they’ve never strained their defining character — luck, moxie, fate, belief, whatever it is — to such a back-breaking degree. The deeper you dive into dark waters, the sweeter the air tastes when you break the surface again.
If this game couldn’t break them, then Philadelphia will never die. They may lose — the Saints are among the toughest of teams the Eagles have faced, over this sensational two-year run — but they will never die. The lore of the underdog era has been etched in the hearts of the city and the team, and as such they cannot be discouraged by an injured starter, weakened by an opponent’s strength, flummoxed by their own impossible persistence, or discounted until the clock reads zeros — and even then, you should double-check. They are miraculous. They are immortal. They are lightning struck twice.
The new norm for Philadelphia is abnormal, incomprehensible, and wicked fun. It is the worst of hope and the best of doubt, a blindfolded ride on a roller-coaster that has to end someday, but not this day, not today. “That’s just what it is,” Timmy Jernignan tells us. “That’s just who we are.”