CHICAGO – Inside a still-raucous visiting locker room at Soldier Field, with white socks and tape and black shower towels strewn on the floor like the midnight-hour aftermath of a rock star’s bacchanalia, Tim Jernigan stood resplendent, 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds, wearing a camouflage hooded shirt with the words BILLIONAIRE BOYS CLUB stretched across his chest, brown aviator sunglasses, and a 4-inch-tall statue of Jesus that dangled from a thick chain around his neck. The statue and chain matched his teeth: gold, gold, gold. There were random streaks of red and yellow and blue on his shirt. He looked like a cross between Mr. T and a Pollock painting.
The Eagles call themselves Underdogs. They wore dog masks last season and ski masks this one, to reaffirm how much they revel in the label, and here was one of their faces Sunday night after a 16-15 wild-card victory over the Bears, after a game in which every play felt fraught with consequence, after Nick Foles completed a thrilling, game-winning drive with a 2-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to Golden Tate, after lineman Treyvon Hester finger-tipped a 43-yard field-goal attempt by Cody Parkey and sent it caroming off the left upright, off the goalpost, and to the ground.
Here was Jernigan, so vital to them last season at defensive tackle, who sacked Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the third quarter to help truncate a drive, who had missed most of the regular season with a herniated cervical disc, who had said he rehabilitated the injury as vigorously as he did because his 3-year-old daughter, Naomi, wanted to go back to the Super Bowl with her dad.
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And, now, someone asked him: Are the Eagles really underdogs? Does that term capture what you’re really all about, or are you just a team whose excellence is based on its mental toughness?
“No, that’s what it is,” Jernigan said. “If you follow the Philadelphia Eagles and you follow our story, and you follow this whole season, that’s who we are. Every week, even before the season got here, they were already saying we were going to be a four- or five-loss team. Ain’t nobody on our side. It’s us. We feel like it’s us versus everybody, point blank. That’s just what it is.”
By now, if everybody is favored against the Eagles, everybody should be worried. They won their first championship last season, after losing their MVP-candidate starting quarterback and a host of other key players. They lost six of their first 10 games this season – a stretch capped by a 41-point loss to their opponent in next Sunday’s divisional round, the New Orleans Saints – fell to 6-7 after an overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, lost Carson Wentz again, and have wielded their unique brand of magic since. Foles has shepherded them to four straight victories, and the Bears themselves opened the door for the Eagles to enter the postseason by wiping out the Minnesota Vikings in the final week of the regular season, and only inches separated them from elimination Sunday night.
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Were they fortunate? Of course. But it was to their credit that they were in that position at all, having asked their defense to keep them close, having embarked on a 12-play, 60-yard drive in the final five minutes of regulation to regain the lead against the best defense in the NFL. When it comes to the Eagles, there is the tangible: the talent, the coaching, the depth. But the intangible matters, too, and there is something about being doubted that lifts this particular team to its greatest heights.
“We hear disrespect,” defensive end Chris Long said. “We definitely listen. It’s hard not to listen. A bunch of talking heads say, ‘They’re done.’ I heard somebody say that we needed to start worrying about losing some games so we’d get a higher draft pick, somebody who gets paid a lot of money, and that’s fine. People are wrong sometimes. Not everybody knows what’s going on. We’re a tough team, and the chips have been down for us before.”
Save the Wentz-or-Nick Foles discussion, then, and just enjoy what the Eagles accomplished last season, what they did Sunday night, and what they might yet do. In the huddle before his touchdown pass to Tate, Foles said nothing to inspire his teammates. “Just calm,” tackle Lane Johnson said, and Foles’ silence drove home the importance of the basic demands on that play. Soldier Field was alive and roaring, and the Eagles needed to focus on Foles’ cadence before the snap and their responsibilities on the play. Do it right, right now. They did.
“It’s really just the people,” Johnson said. “It’s not really the mantra of ‘underdogs.’ We know what it is to be an underdog going into next week, just like we were [Sunday]. I think a lot of the veteran guys have set the mood, set the tempo in here, and everybody else has followed. We got in the playoffs, and we feel like we can make some noise. We throw the underachieving record we had this season out the window. It’s all zero-zero. We knew that.”
They won Sunday when they weren’t at their best. They knew that, too. Foles threw two interceptions in the first half. The Eagles committed several damaging penalties. Trubisky and the Bears’ receivers nearly double-moved the secondary to death. But here they are, still standing, underdogs again ahead of a game against the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Just the other day, Jernigan Facetimed with Naomi, who was at their family’s home in Florida. She kept asking him, “Daddy, where are you at?”
“‘Well, sweetheart,” Jernigan said he told her, “I’m working on that plan we came up with six or seven months ago of getting back to the Super Bowl. You want that, don’t you?”
She isn’t the only one who wants it, and she isn’t the only one who believes that this team can pull it off.