An Underdog Path to the Super Bowl

It’s here. Super Bowl weekend. Back in August and September, even the most optimistic fans wouldn’t have said they expect to see our Birds playing in Minnesota. This was going to be a year of growth for the Eagles. Pederson and Wentz in their second year together, gelling of some new faces, and we were supposed to expect 8-10 wins, maybe less since the Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins were all supposed to be better. These “underdogs” have had an incredible run, and why should it end now? This team has overcome so much; it just feels like they are supposed to win. Below are some of the storylines that make this team and this year so extraordinary.

THE INJURIES

I’ve never seen, in any sport, a team lose so many key players and continue to function at such a high level. You can say, “next man up” all you want, but it rarely works as well as the guys who went down. On this team, it pretty much has. Ronald Darby got hurt, and it looked like it would be season ending. Players like Jaylen Watkins, Patrick Robinson, and Rasul Douglas stepped up and played well in his absence. Darby has returned, and the team’s defensive backfield has been playing exceptional in the playoffs. Caleb Sturgis went down in week 1, and the Eagles signed Jake Elliott, who wasted no time in making a name for himself by kicking a team record 61 yard game-winning field goal against the Giants in week 3. Then Sproles got hurt. The Eagles brought back Kenjon Barner, who has done a decent job returning kicks, and acquired Jay Ajayi in a trade with Miami. Ajayi has been a difference maker as part of a dangerous three-headed monster of Blount, Ajayi, and Clement. They’ve overcome the loss of their special teams captain, Chris Maragos. Standout middle linebacker Jordan Hicks ruptured his Achilles and was lost for the season. Joe Walker, his replacement, also was lost to injury. The Eagles signed Dannell Ellerbe, who has played well when on the field, but the real solution has been the rest of the linebacker corps stepping up. Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks have been playing some of the best football of their careers. They lost Jason Peters, who was replaced by Halapoulivaati Vaitai who, despite some hiccups early on, has established himself as a solid left tackle. Obviously, the biggest blow to the team (or it was supposed to be) was losing MVP candidate, Carson Wentz during the Rams game. Nick Foles, though showing rust, did just enough to help the team win that game, and has regained the form from his magical 27 TD 2 INT 2013 season. Every time someone got hurt, the team’s “next man up” stepped up – and so did everyone else around him.

THE TEAM ATTITUDE

A lot of guys will get on TV and say the “right” things to the media. With this group of guys, I actually believe them, and I don’t think it’s an accident. Starting with head coach Doug Pederson, to Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, Chris Long, Malcolm Jenkins, you name it – they all seem like good guys who put the team first. Even some new faces with reputations like LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi have appeared to accept their roles and really “buy in” to the team aspect. No one seems like a “me first” or “give me the ball” kind of guy. You get the feeling these players are friends – even family. They even meet together for Bible study, and several players have been baptized in the Eagles recovery pool. They are a tight knit group, to say the least.

THE COACHING STAFF

You have to give Doug Pederson a lot of credit for what he has done this season, and regardless of what happens in Super Bowl 52, he should be the NFL Coach of the Year. The way the Eagles have been able to overcome injuries is due mostly to his and his coaching staff’s ability to coach up players, adjust schemes, and find plays that fit the group they have. When Hicks went down, the answer was to play more nickel defense and get Kendricks and Bradham ready to excel in that role. Foles struggled against the Raiders and in his small stint against the Cowboys, but Pederson found what works for Foles, and implemented those plays against Atlanta and Minnesota. Now Foles, who many didn’t think was up for the task of leading this team to the Super Bowl, is the highest rated quarterback in NFL postseason history (116.3). Bart Starr is second at 104.8, and Kurt Warner sits in third at 102.8. Not bad company. Foles also has the highest completion percentage, at 75%. Brees is second in completion percentage at 66.9. Foles also joined a club that was previously only occupied by Joe Montana. The two QBs are the only ones in NFL history to have back-to-back games in the postseason completing 75% of their passes, and Foles is the only one with a passer rating over 100 in each of his first three postseason starts. In other words, he’s been damn good, and a lot of that credit has to go to Pederson.

THEY ARE OUT TO PROVE EVERYBODY WRONG

This team has embraced the role of underdog – the whole city has. “We all we got, we all we need” can be found on t-shirts, headlines, and in this team’s players’ blood. I’m sure the Patriots players want to win, and will fight hard like all professional athletes would in the pinnacle of all contests, but can they possibly want it as bad as these guys? Can they possibly have the same desire, the same fight, the same determination? Can their city? This city of underdogs and team of underdogs has a lot of fight, and I expect them to battle for 60 minutes like it’s way more than a game. What would a championship mean to guys who were written off like Doug Pederson, who Mike Lomardi said was, “… less qualified to coach a team than anyone I’ve ever seen in my 30-plus years in the NFL.” What would it mean to Nick Foles, whose fall from grace with the Rams almost led him to retire from the game? What would it mean to this city, which has yet to win a Super Bowl and hasn’t had a parade since that wonderful Halloween day in 2008? I hope to find out, and I can’t wait until kickoff.

And for what it’s worth, here’s my pick – Eagles 27, Patriots 20

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