NEW ORLEANS – Nick Foles led the Eagles huddle late in the fourth quarter with a chance to win, just as he did last week and last winter and so often during his Eagles career. This is what the Eagles wanted. This is what Philadelphia wanted.
“It felt like that magic was going to continue,” coach Doug Pederson said.
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But there will be no fairy tale finish to the Eagles’ season after a 20-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints in an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday at the Superdome, even with Foles at quarterback.
Foles took a snap 27 yards away from the end zone and the clock approaching the two-minute warning. His pass rocketed through the hands of Alshon Jeffery and into the grasp of Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore for an interception.
The clock struck midnight on an Eagles season that lasted two weeks longer than it seemed it would when the Eagles last visited New Orleans. But it finished three weeks shy of their ambition to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
“I’ve got to make that play,” Jeffery said. “That’s on me. I’ll take that loss. I let my teammates down, the city of Philadelphia.”
Jeffery stayed on the ground in disbelief and disappointment. Foles rushed over to support the receiver, who had proved so clutch for the Eagles throughout the last two seasons. Yet there’s no overstating how much that play will haunt the Eagles this offseason. It wasn’t the reason the Eagles lost, although it was the lasting memory of the loss.
“This is tough just because this is the last time this team will be together,” Foles said. “That’s the toughest part about this.”
The players dressed in a quiet locker room, aware of the striking finality of a postseason loss. They had their first team meeting in April. They went through spring practices and training camp, endured a turbulent season with injuries and overcame long odds to reach the postseason. Once they gathered late-season momentum, it looked as if they had a chance.
“It’s tough, because it’s so final,” Pederson said. “You’re here at the end of the season and no more football. … I just told the guys to keep their heads up. We set out on a journey way back in OTAs and talked about having no regrets and leaving everything out on the field. … They did that this afternoon. And they battled right to the end. They had opportunities. Proud of them. Proud of the season.”
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The Eagles delivered their best punches early and took a quick 14-0 lead, but it was not enough to knock out the top-seeded Saints. Although it wasn’t the lopsided humiliation that the Eagles endured in New Orleans in November, the Saints proved to be the superior team and advanced to play the Los Angeles Rams next week.
The Eagles return to Philadelphia for an uncertain offseason that could include an exodus of key players from last year’s Super Bowl team – including Foles.
Foles finished 18 of 31 for 201 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Jeffery was the leading receiver with five catches for 63 yards.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees went 28 of 38 for 301 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.
That interception came on the first play of the game, when Brees tried testing the Eagles secondary. But this isn’t the same secondary from November. Cre’Von LeBlanc made a leaping interception to give the Eagles possession, offering an example of why defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said that LeBlanc helped save the Eagles season.
The Eagles knew they couldn’t fall behind early, so it was a good sign when the offense followed the interception with a seven-play, 76-yard touchdown drive. Foles found his rhythm, completing a 37-yard strike to Jordan Matthews to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
When Foles responded to a three-and-out by leading the Eagles on a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that finished with a 1-yard touchdown run, it looked as if the Eagles’ underdog story would continue.
“We put up 14 points quickly, which makes this even more frustrating,” center Jason Kelce said. “We were going to get the ball in the second half and if we could have put two more scores together there in the first half, it would been very difficult for them. Great job by our defense. We just didn’t sustain it offensively.”
Pro Bowl offensive lineman Brandon Brooks left the game during that drive with what proved to be a torn Achilles tendon, the first of a series of injuries in the first half.
Foles’ first blemish came when he threw an interception early in the second quarter around midfield, although the Saints were backed up to their own 21-yard line. They went 9 yards before the punting team came onto the field.
The Saints called a fake, and Taysom Hill rushed for 4 yards to keep the Saints drive alive. Had the Eagles stopped the Saints there, they would have regained possession in scoring range.
To make it worse, Fletcher Cox went off the field with a foot injury. At different points in the half, the Eagles’ medical and training staffs needed to evaluate Brooks, Cox, Brandon Graham, Chris Long, Rasul Douglas, Jason Peters, and Jeffery. Everyone except Peters and Brooks returned to the game.
“It’s kind of been our season a little bit, fighting through that adversity,” Pederson said.
The Saints turned their renewed life into points, which came on a 2-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal to cut the Eagles’ lead in half.
They added a field goal before halftime to make it a 14-10 game and possessed the ball throughout most of the third quarter with an 18-play, 92-yard drive that bled more than 11 minutes from the clock and gave them a lead they never relinquished. It included a third-and-16 conversion, one of eight third downs the Saints converted.
“We feel like we probably should have done better,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said after limiting the high-powered Saints offense to 20 points. “A couple third downs we want to have back and could have helped ourselves. But all we ever ask for is guys go out and compete and do their job … and I don’t know many guys who will have regrets with how we played today.”
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The Saints missed a 52-yard field goal with three minutes remaining in the game that would have given them a two-possession lead. That meant the Eagles still had a chance. There was reason for the Eagles to be confident; Foles had done it before.
“We had been here so many times, and we were going to find a way to score a touchdown,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “I don’t think there was any doubt in anyone’s mind what the outcome of the game would be.”
The drive started at the Eagles’ 42 and the they brought the ball 31 yards. Pederson did not want the clock to get to the two-minute warning because he liked the look the Eagles had against the Saints defense on the ill-fated pass.
Jeffery was open. He just missed it. Teammates told him that the Eagles wouldn’t have been in this position without him, that they wouldn’t own Super Bowl rings if not for Jeffery.
“I just told him … ‘Don’t let one play define you,' " Pederson said. “It’s not who he is. He’s too good of a player.”
Jeffery vowed the Eagles would be back. That was the goal in September, when anticipation mounted for a team built to repeat. Instead, Philadelphia is left with an agony that was all-too-familiar every winter except last season.
“Thirty-one teams feel this at the end of the season,” Foles said.
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