MINNEAPOLIS -- Fifty-eight years, 20,859 days, more than two generations. That's how much time had passed since the Philadelphia Eagles last won a championship.
For a fan base whose loyalty has not wavered amid endless heartbreak, the drought is mercifully over. And the party is on.
Underdogs for the third time in as many playoff games, the Eagles took the respect that has not been willfully offered them, outdueling Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, 41-33, on Sunday at US Bank Stadium to win their first Lombardi trophy. Or was it Lincoln Financial Field? The Eagles fans were in full throat every time Brady took the field, and absolutely erupted when defensive end Brandon Graham came up with a strip sack, recovered by rookie Derek Barnett, to help ice the game.
Beating the Patriots would not have been possible if not for the aggressive playcalling of coach Doug Pederson, and a pair of huge, gutsy fourth-down conversions that proved essential.
"It hasn't really sunk in, but I'm so excited for that locker room," Pederson said. "For Mr. [Jeffrey] Lurie to give me this opportunity to coach this team, and then everything that we've been through this season, to get to this point -- a lot of people counted us out -- but that locker room believed, believed in each other, believed in me. I have a great staff and great players, and we found a way to get it done."
Pederson not only went toe-to-toe with Belichick but got the better of him; he's the first person to beat the five-time world champion as a player and now coach. Termed a "freakin' phenomenal playcaller" by tight end Brent Celek at the beginning of the season, Pederson kept the pedal to the floor, mixed it up and kept Matt Patricia's defense off balance. He saved his most creative playcall for the Super Bowl, on fourth down no less. Pederson called a running a reverse throwback from tight end Trey Burton -- a former signal-caller at Florida and the Eagles' emergency quarterback -- to Nick Foles on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the second quarter. It was a game of one-upsmanship, as Brady let a pass from Danny Amendola slip through his hands on a similarly designed play earlier in the quarter.
The play is called "The Philly Special," Pederson said afterwards. They took it from the Chicago Bears, who had run it against the Minnesota Vikings earlier in the season. According to offensive coordinator Frank Reich, they were considering using it versus Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game, but didn't need to. So they broke it out on the game's biggest stage.
"That was something we’d been working on, and Doug and I were talking – I was like, 'Let’s just run it.' And it was a good time," said Foles, the game's MVP. "And the end was a little wider than I thought, so I really needed to sell like I’m not doing anything. And it worked – Burton made an amazing throw right on the money; I just looked it in. We worked on it for a while (in practice), so I was excited for it to get a run in the Super Bowl."
Fueled by analytics, the Eagles had the most fourth-down conversions (20) this season. The decision to roll the dice on fourth-and-1 from their own 45 in the latter stages of the game was pivotal, as Foles' completion to tight end Zach Ertz kept the go-ahead scoring drive alive. It was Foles to Ertz again with 2 minutes, 21 seconds left, a lunging 11-yard TD from the veteran tight end that put the Eagles back on top for good.
Credit Super Bowl MVP Foles (28-of-43, 373 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) for going blow-for-blow with Brady (28-of-48, 505 yards, three touchdowns). The fact Foles was under center instead of Carson Wentz had much to do with the fact that the Eagles were discounted, but Foles rose to the occasion, making his return to Philadelphia a Cinderella story. His two touchdown passes to receiver Alshon Jeffery and rookie running back Corey Clement in the back of the end zone were two of his best throws as a pro.
"I felt calm," Foles said. "I mean, we have such a great group of guys, such a great coaching staff. We felt confident coming in and we just went out there and played football. We've played this game since we were little kids. We dreamed about this moment. There's plenty of kids watching this game right now, dreaming about this moment and some day will be here. To be here with my daughter, my wife, my family, my teammates, this city -- we're very blessed."
Credit Jim Schwartz's defense for preventing another Patriots miracle Super Bowl comeback, even if the road was rocky along the way. Similar to several games this season, including in the divisional round against the Atlanta Falcons, the Eagles' defense came up with big plays when it mattered. This game featured the most collective yards in Super Bowl history, but Graham and the defense ensured the team went back to Philly winners.
"I was just happy that we kept coming," said Graham, who revealed he was playing through a hamstring strain suffered in the first half. "We knew they were going to screen us and dink and dunk, and we knew one play he was going to have to hold it. And I'm just happy the one play cost them the game."
And credit Pederson for being one of the only people on the planet to have the foresight that all of this was possible.
It was early summer and the players were getting ready to scatter for their extended break between minicamp and training camp when Pederson met with a small group of reporters upstairs in the Eagles' media house and made a statement.
Asked if the Eagles were capable of winning big this season with the additions of players such as Jeffery and LeGarrette Blount in free agency, Pederson responded with a comparison that raised every eyebrow in the room and later across the city.
"You're capable. … I look back at my time in Green Bay as a player when we were making those playoff runs and those Super Bowl runs there, and do we have as much talent on this team than we did then? We probably have more talent, right?" Pederson said.
Sure, Reggie White and Brett Favre versus a 7-9 team with a wet-behind-the-ears quarterback out of North Dakota State and a roster even owner Jeffrey Lurie acknowledged had "lots of holes" earlier in the offseason.
There were plenty of laughs at Pederson's expense, but he got the last one. Even as some of the team's most gifted players were lost to injury -- Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks, Wentz -- the Eagles proved to have a river of talent from which to pull, enough to sustain them through the NFC playoffs en route to their third Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Truth is, few saw this coming outside of Pederson -- and even he cautioned talent guarantees nothing if the chemistry and buy-in aren't there. The public perception that this team was a year away from seriously contending was shared by some within the organization as well.
Few anticipated Wentz budding into one of the top quarterbacks in the league in his second year -- he finished second in the NFL with 33 touchdowns despite missing three-plus games because of a torn ACL and was a leading candidate for MVP -- or that his backup would light up the best defense in football in a 38-7 rout of the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.
It seemed far-fetched to think just about every personnel move made by executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman and VP of player personnel Joe Douglas would be a home run, but that's how it shook out. The Eagles capitalized on big signings such as Jeffery, to the trades for cornerback Ronald Darby and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, to lower-level deals such as the ones they gave defensive end Chris Long and cornerback Patrick Robinson.
Perhaps most surprising is Pederson not only found his footing in his second year as head coach but developed into an elite playcaller and an exceptional leader. Buttressed by a strong coaching staff and locker room leaders such as safety Malcolm Jenkins and Wentz, Pederson established a culture of accountability and brotherhood, allowing personalities to shine even as he checked egos at the door. From top to bottom, it was a stunning, brilliant coaching performance.
Roll that all together, and you have an Eagles team that often dominated on the way to a 13-3 regular-season record and pushed through the playoffs to set up a Super Bowl rematch against the Patriots.
They have arrived ahead of schedule. And while this season has reinforced just how unpredictable this sport can be, the Eagles look well-positioned to contend for years to come. Wentz is only 25, and much of his core supporting cast is under contract for the foreseeable future.
This group has a chance to do special things, and already has made Pederson's comments in the summer look prescient. It never ceases to amaze what a season can bring.
"Oh, man Philly is crazy right now I bet," said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. "The city probably won’t sleep for a week. It’s so exciting I can’t wait to be on that bus going down broad street and seeing the passion of these fans when we get back there."