As a rookie in St. Louis in 2010, Sam Bradford entered the final two weeks of the season with near identical circumstances to those he now encounters with the Eagles.
The Rams were 6-8 and needed to win their final two games to clinch a division title. Bradford led them to to a Week 16 win over San Francisco – Dec. 26, no less – to set up a winner-take-all Week 17 game against Seattle. The Rams lost that season finale. Bradford played one of the worst games of his career.
He never played in a late-season, elimination-type game again.
"You kind of just assume it's going to be like that every year," Bradford said. "You kind of take it for granted. Whereas now, you realize it's not like that and how difficult it can be to get yourself back in that position. But I think that's why you put the work in in the offseason, why you put all the work in in training camp – to be in a position like this, to have the opportunity to play in the postseason."
The Eagles host the Washington on Redskins on Saturday night in an elimination game. If they win, they'll be able to clinch the NFC East title next week against the New York Giants. If they lose, they fail to reach the postseason for the second time in Chip Kelly's three seasons with the team. The game will be a worthy barometer for Bradford, who has not played in a game of this magnitude since walking off the field in Seattle on Jan. 2, 2011. The Week 16 and 17 circumstances are almost the same as his rookie year.
"You look forward to playing in these games," Bradford said. "Not everyone has an opportunity to play in meaningful games in December. Obviously, I haven't had many chances to. But you try to do a little bit extra in your preparation during the week, whether it's watching more film, whether it's getting around the guys talking through things to make sure you're on the same page. Once you step on the field, you've got to keep it the same. You can't add any pressure. You can't try to do too much."
After missing much of the past two seasons because of knee injuries, Bradford had spent the past few months offering glimpses that he could fulfill the promise he showed coming out of Oklahoma. His improvement throughout the season has impressed the Eagles, and he displayed signs of the accuracy, arm strength, and decision-making that have long enticed coaches. In his five games since the Eagles' bye week, Bradford completed 66.46 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
But it has not been entirely convincing, or else the Eagles would be better than 6-8 right now. And he hasn't had the opportunity to show how he plays in pressure-packed games. When the Rams lost in 2010, the coverage after the game suggested the team wasn't ready for the moment. They were young, Bradford was a rookie, and the dud could be pardoned because of what was expected in the coming seasons.
But Bradford lost nine of 10 games he started in 2011. His team wasn't good enough at 7-8-1 in 2012 to even contend in the final few weeks of the season. He didn't play in December during the past two seasons. So there's still much for Bradford to prove about how he performs with this type of glare.
"You've got to channel [the nerves] and use it as a good energy," Bradford said. "Obviously everybody's going to be excited. If you're not excited to be playing in this one, I don't know if you'll ever be excited playing football. But you can't let it take you out of your game."
An evaluation of a quarterback requires more nuance than his win-loss record, but it's a statistic that is ultimately attached to a quarterback. All six quarterbacks named to the Pro Bowl have reached the postseason in their careers and have positioned their teams to reach it again this season. The four highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL have all won Super Bowls. Sixteen of the 17 highest-paid quarterbacks have reached the playoffs. At 28, Bradford is the oldest starting quarterback in the NFL this season to never play in the postseason.
Bradford said the Week 17 game in 2010 was "the most amped I've been going into a game" and called it the biggest game he's played. He went 19 of 36 for 155 yards and one interception. He did not throw a touchdown.
The stench of that loss made his Week 16 performance almost a footnote. Bradford went 28 of 37 for 292 yards and one touchdown in a win that eliminated the 49ers and gave the Rams a shot in the final week. That Week 16 game was a big one, too. It's comparable to the game he'll play Saturday.
Bradford said he is calmer this week than he was as a rookie. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who was Bradford's offensive coordinator with the Rams in 2010, said Bradford is "a very dialed-in, kind of a quiet, cerebral, thoughtful guy," and showed those same attributes five years ago.
Still, Bradford did not play well enough in those final weeks to make the postseason. His talent can tantalize only so long. He needs to thrive in these final two weeks if the Eagles are going to play a 17th game. The Eagles can only make next week meaningful if they win Saturday. During a season in which Bradford has answered many of the questions about him, how he performs in these types of games is one that still looms.
"It's been five years," Bradford said. "It's been a long time coming. This is why you play. This is why you get excited to go to work every morning. I couldn't be more excited to play on Saturday night."