FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It was a marvelous story. It was such a marvelous story. It was a backup quarterback coming out of nowhere to be named the most valuable player in the Super Bowl, to get the better of his Hall of Fame-caliber counterpart. It was a head coach, in the second season with his team, outsmarting the innovative mind on the other side of the field. It was the first Super Bowl victory in the franchise's history. It ended a long championship drought for a city with a loyal and fervid fan base. It was a memorable upset and a magical night, emotional and sentimental and full of joy and wonder.
The New England Patriots had that vibe, that feel, in February 2002, after their stunning victory over Kurt Warner and Mike Martz and the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Somewhere along the way, they lost it. Maybe that vibe vanished after they won another Super Bowl two years later, or after they beat the Eagles in 2005 for their third Super Bowl in four years, or after they were accused of spying on opponents but before they were accused of deflating footballs to unacceptably low levels. Or maybe that vibe, that perception that the Patriots were underdogs whose greatness snuck up on everyone, was gone by the late summer of '02, by the beginning of their next training camp, because Bill Belichick and Tom Brady do not traffic much in sentimentality. For more than 15 years, they have been cold and robotic and as close to unbeatable as a team can be in the modern NFL. Rooting for them is like rooting for Apple or Google. They win. They mumble. They move on.
The Eagles and their fans, of course, have not moved on, not really. They've been movin' and groovin' and livin' in that Super Bowl-victory vibe for more than six months now, and though it had all the lasting meaning of any other preseason game, Thursday night's rematch here, a 37-20 New England win, provided an opportunity to contrast the Eagles' approach to winning and celebrating a Super Bowl to that of the dynasty they sent to defeat. Lane Johnson, never reluctant to voice his opinions about the Patriots or any other league-related topic, said this week that experiencing "a heated-up matchup" like this one was a good thing for the Eagles. Malcolm Jenkins Stefen Wisniewski published posts on Twitter that needled the Patriots over Super Bowl LII. One Eagles fan paid for a billboard near Gillette Stadium to taunt the Patriots and their fans, and another flew a plane over the stadium Thursday night – with a banner that read "41-33 Philly Philly SB LII."
This gentle revelry was about more than the extended afterglow of Philadelphia first pro football championship since 1960. From the way that Howie Roseman and the player-personnel department assembles the roster to the way Doug Pederson coaches it, the Eagles have cultivated as open, relaxed, and communal an environment as the traditions and salary-cap rules of the NFL allow. When it comes to sharing responsibility and ownership of the team's fortunes, they have plenty of haves but relatively few have-nots.
"They picked really good dudes," guard Brandon Brooks said of Roseman and his staff. "They were spot-on every time. It's been impressive. This isn't like basketball, where you can have someone like LeBron James. F—, four of us and LeBron, we might get to the playoffs. This is a team sport where you could do that, but the likelihood of you winning it all probably isn't very high."
Actually, the Patriots have followed that top-down formula for a long time now. Yes, their talent and continuity on defense were big reasons, perhaps the biggest, that they were so good in Brady and Belichick's early years together. But they have been a Brady-centered team for more than a decade. It is he and Belichick and everyone else, and even New England's first possession Thursday night, in Brady's first action this preseason, was a timely reminder of the alacrity and efficiency that everyone has come to expect from him: a 62-yard drive that lasted less than five minutes and ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan. It is Brady and Belichick and everyone else, even in the games that don't count, and don't you dare smile until after you win. This is football. This is no laughing matter.
"It's a hierarchy there," Brooks said. "That's not always the case everywhere. The biggest thing is that Doug always says, 'Let your personality show, man.' That'll bring out the best player in them because you're not trying to make them something they're not."