It's one thing to pull a rabbit from the hat and amaze the audience, but quite another to keep the applause coming once everyone knows the trick.
Doug Pederson didn't devise a winning game plan against the Atlanta Falcons out of thin air, and the 15-10, divisional-round win wasn't just a sleight-of-hand ploy. It was real, thanks to a well-crafted strategy that played to the strengths of Nick Foles and the aggressive tendencies of the Atlanta defense.
Unfortunately, the Minnesota Vikings, who will meet the Eagles on Sunday for the right to play in the Super Bowl, have access to that game film. That's why the real test of Pederson's magic will arrive in the NFC championship game, when he will need to find another blueprint for constructing a playoff win.
Maybe it won't have to be a completely new plan – in fact, given Foles' limitations, it can't be – but it will require enough wrinkles that the best defense in the league can't just go to school on the Atlanta game and graduate easily to the Super Bowl.
"Frank [Reich] and I discussed and put together [a] game plan that was conducive to some of Nick's strengths," Pederson said this week. "It wasn't anything crazy or out of the ordinary from what we've done all season, but just plays where he was comfortable. [We] really had a tight game plan. There really weren't a lot of moving parts as far as motion and shifts and things like that. We … just felt real good about our game plan last week, and we've got to do the same thing again this week."
The stripped-down offense was predicated on pushing the running game, particularly in the first half, to draw Atlanta's defense closer to the line and open gaps for quick-hitting tosses on run-pass option calls. The plan was effective, at least effective enough to yield the 15 points the offense was able to collect.
Foles relied on swing passes, screens, and all manner of underneath routes that found space between the line of scrimmage and the umbrella of Atlanta's deep secondary. Seventeen of Foles' 23 successful attempts were completed either behind the line of scrimmage or within five yards downfield. According to Pro Football Focus, his average target depth on 30 attempts was a modest 5.2 yards.
The Eagles succeeded because there was good downfield blocking to add yards to those short passes, and because the swarming Atlanta defenders proved susceptible to play-action fakes and misdirection blocks. That was fortunate for the Eagles. If every receiver had stopped exactly where he caught the ball, the passing offense would have gained approximately 75 net yards in the game.
Minnesota defensive coordinator George Edwards has studied this and no doubt has a plan for clogging those open spaces. If the Eagles are going to dink and dunk, and require 12- to 14-play drives to get down the field, Edwards will make that as difficult as possible. It could be he has to sacrifice some coverage security on deeper throws, but if Pederson's plan against the Falcons made it seem the Eagles didn't believe Foles could be dangerous in that regard, why should the Vikings?
"Last week, I think we had three drives of over 10 plays," offensive coordinator Reich said. "That's the challenge going up against one of the better defenses in the league. And I think one thing we have to scheme [is] ways to make a few chunk plays here and there."
That's where the rabbit comes in. Pederson has figured out how to produce some big gains, because stringing together a dozen smaller ones against the Vikings isn't going to be the same as doing so against Atlanta.
"I think they are the best defense we've faced this year, and I think one of the reasons why is they can get pressure with four and cover with seven," Reich said. "Any time you can get pressure with four and cover with seven … that's a winning formula."
Pederson knows what the Vikings expect, or at least what the Atlanta game film will lead them to expect. How he counter-programs against that expectation will be fascinating to see. He might open things up – it would have the element of surprise, if nothing else – and roll the dice with Foles getting man-to-man coverage down the field. Aside from trying a deep route on the first play against the Falcons, sort of a throat-clearing move that wasn't repeated, the Eagles didn't do that at all last Saturday.
He has already shown a willingness to call plays that sometimes don't seem to make sense, until afterward. It's difficult for a defense to get comfortable when down and distance aren't reliable guideposts.
"I've learned through watching him call plays that he's a little unorthodox at times – in a good way," Reich said of Pederson. "Calling two screens back to back, for instance, the other day. There's other things that's he's called that, at the time, I thought, that's unique. I'm not sure that would have hit my brain like that, and many times, those things have worked out."
Pederson calls it "getting in the flow of the game, the feel of the game" when his best play-calling instincts take over. He'll need all the flow he can get on Sunday, and it wouldn't hurt to find a little magic in the air as well.
The last show went so well that the crowd is still on its feet. This would be an awful time to discover the hat this time contains only last week's rabbit.