EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Just a guess, but no one wearing green and screaming here at MetLife Stadium, no one wearing green and watching at home from the comfy chair closest to the flat-screen, and no one along the Eagles’ sideline — not a player, not a coach, not an intern — exhaled Sunday until just before 7 p.m., until just more than 13 minutes remained in the fourth quarter, until Malcolm Jenkins slapped the football out of the hands of Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, and a moment of desperate madness ensued.
The football rolled and tumbled toward the Giants’ goal line, players in blue reaching for it, players in white chasing it, and it didn’t stop rolling and tumbling until Fletcher Cox fell on it at the 2-yard line. One play later, Carson Wentz handed the ball to Boston Scott, who went gliding into the end zone. The Eagles led by 10 points. They were going to win. They were going to the playoffs. They would win the NFC East. It was OK to breathe.
It’s OK to do more than breathe, actually. It’s OK to take a moment — in the wake of the Eagles’ 34-17 victory, ahead of the playoff game they’ll host next weekend at Lincoln Financial Field — to appreciate what they accomplished over these last four weeks. The actual accomplishment isn’t, on its face, much to brag about, relatively speaking. They finished with a 9-7 record for the second consecutive year, and they finished atop a division that could charitably be called the worst in the NFL this season. They entered September as a favorite to represent their conference in the Super Bowl, and they will not enter the playoffs with that same status. It’s unlikely that they’ll be favored to win next week, even though they’ll play at home.
But how they did what they did matters. This was a team that, after consecutive losses to the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, and Miami Dolphins, was as dead as Jacob Marley, dead as a door nail. The Eagles were 5-7, and there were questions about the quarterback, questions about the changes that they needed to make in the offseason, questions about everything. There had been two lopsided losses early in the season, in Minnesota to the Vikings and in Texas against the Cowboys. Grumbling and backbiting wafted out of the locker room like wisps of smoke. Key players kept getting hurt. The Cowboys’ roster had so much talent. It’s easy to forget, because everything feels so good now, how bad things were then.
“Honestly, man, it was about coming out and getting that respect back,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “We felt like we lost it at some point. Those two blowout games that we had — everybody kind of wrote us off, and we just decided, man, we’ve got to turn our season around.”
Many of those questions remain, of course, and there will come an appropriate time to begin answering them. But amid a string of injuries to valuable players, a conga line to the trainer’s room that grew so long that it became near-comical at times, two of the most important people in the organization answered the questions about themselves. Surrounded by backups and rookies and castoffs, Wentz raised his level of play to, and at times well beyond, that of his MVP-caliber 2017 season. And coach Doug Pederson held together a group, fraying just a month ago, that could have fallen apart completely. For three straight years now, the Eagles have excelled late, playing at their best when the games matter most. That can’t be a coincidence.
“That’s just Doug and his attitude,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “Doug is a guy who says, ‘Never get too high about things. Never get too low about things.’ All he knows is work, and as a leader of this team, I just want to pass that message along. You can control only what you can. We bought into it, and you see what happens.”
The result is a team that is nowhere near the equal of that Super Bowl team from 2017-18, but that is nonetheless perfect for Philadelphia’s sports sensibility. The Eagles have no expectations heading into the postseason. They’re there. That’s enough. They have done what no one expected them to do, and they have nothing to lose. Down at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones turned his eyes to a television to see Scott run for his third touchdown, for the score that ended all doubt that Dallas’ season was over and the Eagles’ would go on, and minutes later, up here in North Jersey, the celebration began.
“Get all these new faces,” Graham shouted, sweeping his right hand across the room to point out all the young players who had contributed to Sunday’s victory, a black NFC EAST CHAMPIONS baseball cap on his head. “We’re going to be underdogs next week, man."
It’s the place where they’re most comfortable. It’s the place where their fans are most comfortable. All the pressure’s off now, for everyone. Go ahead. It’s OK. Breathe.