The Eagles shut out the fiercest edge rusher in the business in their wild-card win on Sunday. Afterward, Jason Kelce, who centers the line both in formation and in temperament, said, “We have a very mature team.”
A few feet away, right tackle Lane Johnson and right guard Brandon Brooks were about to prove him wrong.
“It came down to the fourth-and-2. Golden made a great play,” Johnson was saying, explaining how the game-winning touchdown pass from Nick Foles to Golden Tate developed.
The game had ended about 45 minutes earlier. Johnson stood at his locker in a black-and-green Eagles sweatshirt, unkempt and unpolished. A white towel was folded and draped over a bar in his locker. Brooks, wearing a wet towel around his ample waist, stood to Johnson’s left and noted his scruffiness.
“You’re not going to shower, dog?” Brooks asked.
“I did shower,” Johnson replied.
“Your towel’s still hanging there," Brooks said. "I’ve got some questions.”
“You can feel the towel and see if it’s damp,” Johnson said.
Brooks felt it.
“It’s dry. Bone-dry!" Brooks replied. Johnson began to smile. Busted. "You’re laughing, you lying ... ”
“This isn’t the towel I used," Johnson said, scrambling. "I ... used a black one.”
Yeah. They’re loose. And happy. And proud.
In September, the Bears made the blockbuster move of the year. They traded a king’s ransom to the Raiders for outside linebacker Khalil Mack, then signed him to a princely six-year, $141 million contract extension. He seemed like a bargain as he logged 12½ sacks in 14 games, made his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl and anchored a defense that turned a 5-11 team into a 12-4 NFC North champion. But the Bears acquired him to wreak his havoc in the playoffs, too.
The Eagles didn’t allow that. Mack finished with zero sacks, two quarterbacks hits and one tackle for loss in a 16-15 loss Sunday. He primarily lined up across from left tackle Jason Peters, but Johnson got a mouthful of Mack, too.
“He’s a tyrant out there. He’s a menace. The main thing was to keep Mack off the quarterback,” Johnson said. “That really was our whole focus.”
The focus this week: Saints end Cameron Jordan. Akiem Hicks, the Bears' Pro Bowl defensive tackle, said Jordan is almost as good as Mack and Broncos rusher Von Miller.
The Saints tied for fifth with 49 sacks. Jordan had 12 of them. It was his fourth season with at least 10 sacks, each of those a Pro Bowl season. He was shut out when the Eagles got rocked, 48-7, at New Orleans on Nov. 18, mainly because he was rested late in the game. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins had eight sacks, one of them in that game.
Those are big numbers, but these days big numbers inspire the Birds.
Mack and Hicks (7½ sacks), Rams' Aaron Donald (20½), the Texans' J.J. Watt (16) and Jadeveon Clowney (nine), and Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (13) and defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (eight) sacked the quarterback 86½ times this season.
They combined to sack Nick Foles just twice; by Clowney and Kerrigan.
“I think they rise to the occasion,” coach Doug Pederson said. "Any time that we hear a lot about our opponent, especially the guys up front. It just seems like our guys have really embraced that opportunity and embraced the challenge."
They haven’t risen on every snap. Foles has been sacked five times in the past four games. Clowney, unabated, speared him in the sternum three weeks ago. Foles hasn’t been blameless, either. The third sack he took at Washington knocked him from the game with bruised ribs.
The Eagles shouldn’t expect to be without blemish in this stretch. All four teams are among the league’s top 15 in sacks allowed, and Foles was sacked only once against Chicago, the best of the bunch; their 50 sacks tied for third in the league.
“I’m not saying that we handle all the business,” Johnson said. “But here, now, when you go against top guys, the film is our resume. Just go look. We take a lot of pride going against great talent.”
To be fair, it’s talent vs. talent. Peters is a Hall of Fame-caliber player. Johnson might be, too. Kelce, who just got his second straight first-team All-Pro nod, and Brooks, who just made his second consecutive Pro Bowl, largely nullified Donald four weeks ago. Donald has been the best defensive player in the league the past two seasons. Stopping him began the winning.
At that point, the Eagles were 6-7. If they hoped to reach the playoffs and advance then they could not afford another loss. And they were staring at the most accomplished collection of pass rushers they saw all season.
There’s one more elite group coming. They’re ready.
"We’re clicking when we need it most,” Johnson said.
He was still unclean.
Of course, if the line keeps playing like this, he might never shower again.
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