At the beginning of last week, Eagles coach Doug Pederson told quarterback Nick Foles, "Let's go be Nick." After the Eagles' 15-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional playoffs Saturday when Foles outplayed former MVP Matt Ryan, Pederson said, "Nick was Nick."
This is not faint praise, but rather Pederson's understanding of Foles and the Eagles. After Carson Wentz's injury, Pederson emphasized that the team's success is not about one player. When Foles struggled during the final two games of the season, Pederson echoed the same message. The Eagles didn't ask Foles to be Wentz. They just needed Foles to function within the offense, making plays when available and avoiding the mistakes that could plague a playoff game.
The result: Foles completed 23 of 30 attempts for 246 yards. He didn't throw a touchdown pass, but he didn't throw an interception, either. The Eagles relied on their running game early and then tried to get Foles into a rhythm in the second half.
"Stayed committed to the run, obviously, and that helps," Pederson said. "And then with the passing game, just him making great decisions and getting the ball out of his hand and finding the open receiver. He did a really nice job executing the game plan how we … know Nick can."
The Eagles are one win away from making the Super Bowl with Foles — and they'll need to beat a team that starts Case Keenum at quarterback to get there.
This isn't just improbable to anyone who watched the 2015 St. Louis Rams when they were teammates, but perhaps even to their own teams in September, when both passers were backups. Yet the Eagles and Vikings won this weekend, and they're not alone among contenders lacking heralded quarterbacks.
The quarterbacks for three of the remaining four teams are Foles, Keenum, and Blake Bortles. That's not a trio expected to join Tom Brady in Canton, Ohio, at any point, and would be outliers on lists of Super Bowl quarterbacks.
But the Eagles, Jacksonville, and Minnesota had three of the top four defenses in the NFL this season and three of the top seven rushing offenses. Pederson emphasized the "defense-and-run-the-ball formula leading up to the game, and it's one that has helped teams get this far.
The Eagles didn't appear to make dramatic changes with Foles. As a player whose performances cover a wide spectrum on the passer rating chart, Foles was better than the reputation he developed during the previous two weeks. His game was far from outstanding — his first pass hit the wind like a wall and fell short his intended target, yet the Eagles benefited from pass interference. He threw what appeared a surefire interception at the end of the first half that ricocheted off a Falcons defender and into Torrey Smith's hands for a long reception. Foles experienced the other end of bounces in his poor outings this season.
Saturday did not offer personal validation for Foles, who knows the pendulum of playing quarterback and realizes that the perception of him is often tied to his latest performance.
"You are aware of it because you are human, but we blocked it out and we just went to work," Foles said. "We had a great two weeks of practice, and I think that's the big thing."
The benefits of two weeks to prepare were evident. Foles missed most of training camp and the preseason, and he spent the first 14 weeks of the season running the scout-team offense. The Eagles mostly had walk-throughs during the final three weeks when Foles was the starter and spent time game-planning for opponents, so they didn't have the type of practice work to prepare Foles. It came the last two weeks, and Alshon Jeffery noted how comfortable and confident Foles seemed.
"You can feel that way, but you really never know until you get to the game," Foles said. "And just get into a rhythm and figuring out that rhythm and playing. Fifteen points got the job done, but we still have a long ways to go and we still have to keep getting better."
The Eagles mixed in up-tempo play calls after big gains and used run-pass options to help set up quick high-percentage throws. His longest passes did not come through his throws but rather with the receiver running after the catch.
"The play-calling was excellent," tackle Lane Johnson said. "We have a bunch of stuff that fits in with what Nick does and what he is accustomed to."
A term used often with Foles is "rhythm." He's like a three-point shooter who can catch fire. His completions often come in bunches, and when he's cold, it's usually a bad day for the offense. He completed 6 of 8 pass attempts in the third quarter, including five in a row on one scoring drive.
"Nick played his butt off; he made the throws when he had to," tight end Zach Ertz said. "We ran the ball efficiently so we weren't facing a ton of third-and-longs, which was huge and that's going to be the way we can continue to do this thing is not having those third-and-long situations."
Foles was 4 for 8 when the Eagles passed on third down, including conversions with 3, 7, 7, and 8 yards to go. Two of those passes were to running backs, which shows the high-percentage passing situations the Eagles created.
It also helped that he formed a connection with Jeffery, the Eagles' top receiver. Three of Jeffery's receptions came after halftime, when Foles looked like the quarterback the Eagles need in the postseason. That's when "Nick was Nick."
"You guys [in the media] doubted him. We never doubted him," Jeffery said. "We believe in anybody lining up back there at quarterback. We believe that we still have 21 other guys out there."