NEW ORLEANS -- How many lives does one football season deserve? Three, it turns out.
The 2018 Eagles lived resurrection to the fullest.
As Eagles fans wrestle with the image of Alshon Jeffery’s dropped pass in the fourth quarter, which denied Nick Foles a 13th game-winning drive in his stop-and-start career, they should find solace in this:
Foles and Jeffery had no business being here. The Eagles defied stupendous odds to come seven points short of a second consecutive NFC title game. They’d been buried long before. Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the Saints, lost 20-14, was sheer bonus.
Oh, they weren’t happy, or satisfied. They believed to the very end they were the chosen ones. They exploded for 14 quick points, then went silent for the rest of the game, but they had somehow limited Drew Brees & Co. to 20 points, and after a roughing-the-passer call they stood on the Saints' 27-yard line with a hair more than 2 minutes left.
“I thought that we were on our way. It just felt like the momentum at that point was in our favor,” coach Doug Pederson said. “It felt like that magic was going to continue.”
The magic stopped. Jeffery watched a routine pitch-and-catch slip though his enormous, 10¾-inch paws and into Marshon Lattimore’s waiting mitts, and that was that. Finally.
They first died here, on Nov. 18, an historic, 41-point loss, the worst by any reigning Super Bowl champion, which left them at 4-6.
They won the next two but perished again at Dallas, on Dec. 9, a bad-luck overtime tip, which left them at 6-7, with the Rams, Texans, and Redskins left to play. And they would play them not with franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, who developed a fractured vertebra from Games 3 to 14; but rather with Foles. Just before kickoff of the Rams game, they were given a 13 percent chance to make the playoffs.
They won. And won. And won again, then watched the Bears knock out the Vikings in Game 16 to let them in ... then repaid that kindness last week, with a win in Chicago.
They Lazarus-ed themselves twice. How?
“When a lot of people were counting us out, midseason, then the Dallas game -- that’s why you play 16 games,” Pederson said.
After their worst moments, they got better. They got good.
And then, on Sunday, they held the team that scored at least 40 points six times, and at least 30 points nine times, to 20 points. Coming off a bye. At home.
They did it not only without four of their top five defensive backs but, for stretches Sunday night, without Fletcher Cox and Michael Bennett, their best defensive linemen, and without replacement cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox, who left briefly due to injury.
Yes, they gave up a crucial third-and-16 during an 18-play, 92-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter that gave the Saints a 17-14 lead, the most important third-down conversion of their 8-for-15 rate. Yes, they couldn’t stop a fake punt that led to their other touchdown, in the second quarter.
But they improved, by 21 points. How?
“We knew all week it was going to be different. We played a lot more zone this time. The first time we played man-to-man, and double-teamed 13 [Michael Thomas] and 41 [Alvin Kamara] the whole game,” said linebacker Nigel Bradham. “But we were in a bad spot last time. Bunch of new guys, so we were forced to play man-to-man. This game, we didn’t do that. We played our game.”
That wasn’t quite enough. There’s no shame in losing to Brees, an MVP candidate, or Sean Payton, a brilliant coach who has won a Super Bowl. There’s certainly no shame in doing so undermanned and on the road for a second consecutive week.
That’s why there was no shame in that locker room. Disappointment, yes. But mostly pride.
They know how far they came.
“When things got ugly, when everybody was counting us out, we got even closer,” Bradham said.
It was a fascinating group, crippled by injury but somehow stronger for it. They played 10 games in the regular season without former Saints scat back Darren Sproles, who returned for Game 12, but they never quite replaced starting running back Jay Ajayi, who was lost in Game 5, or his backup, Corey Clement, who was limited by injury from Game 3 on and was finally done after Game 13. Starting receiver Mike Wallace played only the first two games and didn’t catch a pass.
And, they lost Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks on their second touchdown drive. They had run the ball six times for 34 yards before his injury.
They ran 10 more times ... and gained just 15 more yards.
And, with 2 minutes to play, they still had a chance to win.
This season, they never thought they didn’t have a chance to win. To win it all. Again.
That’s just who they are.
“It’s a lot of gritty people who won’t settle for the status quo,” said Bennett, who went to two Super Bowls with similarly singular Seahawks teams. “This team is very unique in how we deal with each other.”
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So yes, they were saddened that it ended. But they were heartened that it happened, Pederson chief among them. As they left the Superdome field, he told them as much.
“It’s tough, because it’s so final,” Pederson said. “We keep talking about having no regrets, and to leave everything out on the field. They did that tonight.”
It wasn’t just Sunday.
“I am proud of them. Proud of the season. Proud of [overcoming] the adversity we faced all season long. We found our way into the postseason,” Pederson said.
Incredibly, inexplicably, they nearly found their way three games deep.
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