CHICAGO – The ball hung in the chilly lakefront air, spinning toward the north goalpost at Soldier Field, and the Eagles’ season traveled right along with it, seemingly headed for a sudden end.
Hey, they had taken a good shot at the win in this improbable return to the postseason on Sunday, and even drove down in the waning minutes to take a one-point lead. But, realistically, this was it, right? Cody Parkey of the Chicago Bears was about to convert a last-second 43-yard field goal for the win and the dream of repeating their Super Bowl championship would end for the Eagles.
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Expectation collided with cold steel at the back of the end zone as Parkey’s attempt drifted left and caromed off the upright before falling solidly on the cross bar and – by the grace of a few inches this way or that, as oblong ball bounced away from the round post – fell back onto the field.
“It was a crazy game,” quarterback Nick Foles would say a few minutes later, after the 16-15 outcome was official and the Eagles had advanced to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. They will need to win another road game to stay alive again, this time against the New Orleans Saints, the top seed in the conference and a team that beat them by 48-7 seven weeks ago. Few outside their locker room are going to believe it can happen.
“They said we weren’t going to get in the playoffs, either,” guard Brandon Brooks said. “They said we weren’t going to beat the Bears. So, we’ll see what happens.”
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The previous loss to New Orleans left the Eagles at 4-6 on the season and needing something of a late-season miracle to qualify for the postseason. They won five of their last six in the regular season to barely slip into the playoffs, and now that they are there, the luck that eluded them much of the year seems to be turning their way. At least it did on Sunday.
“We finally got a bounce,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “Not many things went right for us at the start of the year. We finally got one.”
Parkey’s miss put a cap on what was a very strange game, and one that didn’t turn toward the Eagles until very late. Foles threw two interceptions in a first half that ended with Chicago holding a 6-3 lead, but he was able to direct two touchdown drives in the second half that proved just enough for the win.
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The final drive ended with a fourth-down pass from the Chicago 2-yard line to receiver Golden Tate. If that play had gone awry, or a dozen others that kept alive those second-half drives, the Eagles would be cleaning out their lockers on Monday. Instead, they are one of the eight teams still competing for the championship.
“We talk about brotherhood, and sticking together,” Foles said. “Just believing we’re going to get the job done. We’ve gone through a lot as a team. It’s about finding the DNA of the team. It takes time. It’s easy to pat each other on the back when things are going well. I threw a couple of picks today and the guys were there to lift me up, and this is what this is all about.”
The ride won’t get easier, but at least it is continuing, and far differently than their journey to the Super Bowl a year ago. Foles took over for injured starter Carson Wentz then as well, but he took over a team that would be top-seeded in the conference, have the luxury of a first-round bye and then enjoy home games through the conference final. That’s not the path this time, and now the road goes through New Orleans.
“This is awesome, especially the way it went down,” said linebacker Jordan Hicks, who missed the postseason last time because of injury. “I think we’re a different team than we were [against the Saints earlier this season]. We’re playing well now and with a lot of confidence. I like our team.”
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The team has been doubted before and will be doubted plenty this coming week. It appears to be something they don’t mind.
“We’re just going to keep on fighting,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “We’ve got another opponent that people are not going to give us a chance on. All we got to do is be the best on that day.”
They were on Sunday, but by the barest of margins. Perhaps just by the fingertips of defensive tackle Treyvon Hester, who said he slightly tipped Parkey’s field goal try. Perhaps just by the rotation of the ball as it struck the upright. This wasn’t a game of inches, but one of millimeters.
Yet, as the ball spun through the evening in the silent stadium, it could have gone either way. The Eagles believe it was meant to go their way. And it did.
Perhaps there is still a lot more to go that way as well.