Different year, different quarterback, and definitely different stakes. But when Brandon Graham muscled his way through a double-team by Giants right tackle Cameron Fleming and running back Dion Lewis and used his right mitt to knock the ball out of the hands of Daniel Jones and secure an ugly, 22-21, come-from-behind win for the Eagles, it prompted a flashback of a similar play he made three years earlier on a much bigger stage and in front of a much larger crowd than the 6,000 or so masked-up folks at the Linc on Thursday night.
It was the signature moment of the defensive end’s career. The one that guaranteed he never, ever will have to buy an alcoholic beverage inside the city limits of Philadelphia for the rest of his life.
With the Eagles clinging to a five-point lead over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots late in Super Bowl LII, Graham stormed past right guard Shaq Mason and did the same thing to Brady that he did to Jones. He knocked the ball out of his hands and the Eagles went on to win their first-ever Super Bowl.
Graham’s strip-sack Thursday night helped keep the Eagles very much alive in the NFC East. How much it will be remembered will depend largely on what happens the rest of the year.
If the 2-4-1 Eagles don’t win the division, it will be wreckage from a quickly forgotten season. If they do, it will hold much greater significance.
Graham is betting on the latter.
“I believe [Thursday’s win] is going to change our season around,” he said. "Like Coach [Doug Pederson] says, we’re battle-tested. All the things that tend to go wrong in these games, we always find a way to rally back.
“Sometimes we come up short in the end. But things are going to start clicking for us. I think it started tonight. It was an ugly win. But at the end of the day, a win is a win. We can continue to build off of it.”
At 32, Graham is having the best season of his career. His fourth-quarter sack was his sixth of the year. He came into the game with a team-high 26 total quarterback pressures. He’s been one of the Eagles’ best run defenders.
“Just taking my nutrition more seriously this year than I ever have,” he said. "I’m feeling really good. My body’s feeling really good right now. I feel fast.
“Our [defensive line] rotation is helping a lot. I don’t feel like I’m taking on a big beating from these games. I got chipped a lot of times today. That can wear on your body a little bit. But it’s cool when you’ve got a good rotation and guys you can count on. Because, in that fourth quarter, when you need [to make] a play, I felt like I did in the first quarter. I felt hungry and ready to go make a play.”
“That’s one of the reasons why BG is a captain on this team, a leader on this team,” safety Jalen Mills said. “He’s a guy who just goes out there and does his job. He’s not a guy who forces plays. He lets plays come to him. For some reason, he always comes up clutch in the fourth quarter for us.”
Graham’s sack Thursday was the ninth of the Eagles' 24 sacks to come in the fourth quarter or overtime. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz understands well the importance of keeping your rushers rested so that they can finish strong.
With a short-week game, Graham played just 60% of the Eagles' defensive snaps Sunday against Baltimore. That was his lowest rate since Week 1. The snaps he didn’t take in that game ended up having a trickle-down effect in the fourth quarter Thursday.
“Man, it’s just something about the end of the game with the rotation we have,” Graham said. “You feel stronger. You just can’t wait because you know you’re in a pass situation. And all you gotta do is make a couple of moves, get to the quarterback, and hope he holds the ball. And he held the ball right there. I went straight for it.”
Graham gave a shout-out to Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins. The former Eagles safety used to tell Graham to go for the ball and not just the sack when he served as a personnel assistant with the team during its Super Bowl season.
“Thank you, B-Dawk,” Graham said. “Because I was thinking of you [on that play]. Instead of just going for the sack, I went for the ball. It changed the whole game with that.”
Actually, Dawkins wasn’t the only person he was thinking about on that play. He also had his 4-year-old daughter, Emerson, on his mind.
“I was talking on the sideline with [offensive tackle] Jordan Mailata before I went out there that last time,” Graham said. “He said something that sparked me. He said, ‘Act like Emerson is watching.’ That’s my baby girl. She’d be excited for me. [It would] give her something to be proud of. It’s cool that I made that play.”
Graham and the Eagles pressured the Giants' second-year quarterback much of the night. But Jones did a good job of getting the ball out before they could get to him. He completed 13 of 18 passes in the second half. He had more than one touchdown pass for only the second time this season.
Graham’s late sack was just the third one of the game for the Eagles. But it was a big one.
“We just keep on fighting,” said Graham, whose team found itself down by 11 after Jones hit wide receiver Sterling Shepard for a 2-yard touchdown with6:17 left in the game.
"We don’t worry about the past. We try to stay futuristic. We fight to the end.
"Some of the stuff that’s happening to us right now, it’s going to start changing. Because I really do feel like our team is getting stronger every week. And every week, our confidence is growing.
“We finally pulled one out at the end. You know how tough it is in this league to win games. For us to rally back, luckily with that drop that [Evan] Engram gave us [on the Giants' previous possession], we took advantage of that opportunity.”