The game was over and the Eagles had won and, miracle of miracles, Leodis McKelvin was on the move. He had intercepted Matt Ryan's final pass Sunday in a 24-15 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, the perfect punctuation for a terrific performance by the Eagles' defense, and he lifted his arms into the air into a V, and he was running. On a hamstring so sore that, even though coach Doug Pederson had selected him to be a team captain Sunday, McKelvin didn't bother to walk to midfield for the coin toss, he was running.
If you were McKelvin, you'd have felt like running, too, or trying to. Torched for two touchdown passes, he had been one of several goats in the Eagles' loss to the Giants last week. That hamstring strain - the one that had forced him to miss three games already this season - had obviously slowed him against the Giants, and really, there is one way to rehabilitate a hamstring injury: You rest. You sit and you let it heal and you don't practice, which McKelvin did last week, and you definitely don't plan on seeing significant action in a significant game against the NFL's No. 1-ranked offense and Julio Jones, who is a rather significant receiver.
But the Eagles are short at cornerback, and they got even shorter late in the second quarter Sunday, when Nolan Carroll suffered a concussion. Pederson said after the game that he had "full intention" of playing McKelvin, though McKelvin himself said that he was an "emergency player," as if he were a fire extinguisher behind glass. Whatever. Those labels became irrelevant once the Eagles knew that Carroll wouldn't return and McKelvin knew for certain that he was going into the game, even if he really ought to have been resting his hamstring.
And he was fine with that. He wanted to go into the game. He had signed a two-year contract with the Eagles in March, after eight seasons with the Buffalo Bills, because he wanted to play in the NFC East. The Bills had made him the No. 11 overall pick of the 2008 draft, and he said Sunday that he felt unfulfilled there, "being in Buffalo, not being televised, not really having that pedestal . . . Being able to be on this stage, the media and everything like that, seeing me play, it'll help me out."
He could showcase himself with the Eagles and his old defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz. He could prove that, at the relatively old age of 31, he was capable of being a No. 1 cornerback, and he had a chance to go to the playoffs, which he had never done with the Bills. Then he got injured, and Eli Manning was tossing TDs to wide-open receivers whom McKelvin was supposed to be covering, and now Carroll was unavailable.
"You're in a situation where you feel like you need to be out there and be the type of player that you are," McKelvin said. "It's the best situation I could be in, and with the hamstring injury, I feel like, 'Why is it happening to me now, with the situation I'm in now?' But I try to stay levelheaded, try to keep my mind into it, getting the strength back into it. Maybe I can be the player I know I can be. I'm just fighting through it."
The Eagles knew that McKelvin "was on a flat tire," safety Malcolm Jenkins said, so they put rookie Jalen Mills on Jones, mixed a cover-2 scheme with some man-to-man, and took their chances that their pass rush would hinder Ryan enough to disrupt the Falcons offense. On the second play of the fourth quarter, it didn't. McKelvin lined up opposite wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, who ran a hitch-and-go route. McKelvin did not go with him. He fell for the fake, and Gabriel, alone beyond the rest of the Eagles' secondary, caught a 76-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to give the Falcons a 15-13 lead.
Here's the funny part of that touchdown: It was worth having the Falcons score it, just to hear McKelvin describe what happened. He is from the town of Waycross, in southern Georgia, and he does not censor himself, and when he speaks, the words fly from his mouth like shards from a wood chipper.
"S---, got greedy!" he said. "S---, I was in this coverage and what not, and s--- opened up so wide. I was like, 'Man,' because I was watching film. I said, 'That's a curl.' So I was like, 'I'm gonna jump this b---- and make a play. . . . Oh, s---. Wrong time! Wrong timing, man. That was the wrong timing for me doing that.'"
Here's the surprising part of that touchdown: It was the only one the Falcons scored Sunday. The Eagles - thanks in part to the return of tackle Bennie Logan, who had missed three games with a groin injury - sacked Ryan twice and hit him six times. Jones dropped what would have been a sure first-down catch on third and 12 late in the game. The Falcons scored fewer points, ran fewer plays, and gained fewer yards than they had in any previous game this season. And McKelvin defended three passes without allowing a completion. He could have intercepted each of the first two.
"Third time's a charm," he said. "The first one, I was trying to make a circus catch or something like that. Second one surprised the mess out of me. I got my head around, the ball was, like, right there, so soft. . . .
"They came back with the same play. They actually ran the same play back-to-back. You know, like, don't do that."
Except they did, and he caught it, and after one long and hard week, damned if Leodis McKelvin didn't start running. He might as well have been flying.