This Super Bowl, contested by the imperial New England Patriots and the underdog Philadelphia Eagles, was a worst-case scenario matchup for me. I join the rest of the country outside of Massachusetts in possessing an acute distaste for the Patriots, and, as a New York Giants fan, I revel in the Eagles’ (former) historic futility. Stopping a good team seemed a bit more to ask of fate than relieving a bad team of their hope, so I told my friends that I was rooting for the Patriots.
When watching a competition, one waits for the David to show some foreboding cracks in the armor. The first sign was the Eagles’ failure to capitalize on their promising, opening drive with a touchdown. A pass out of the side of the end zone is what brought up fourth down. I thought that Foles just didn’t have it. How could he? This is a man two years deep into backing up quarterbacks—second string.
Then the venerated Tom Brady comes to the field, a wily general standing tall, as if still a young man, behind his front line. You get the sense that the battle on the line develops more slowly when you keep your eyes on Brady’s collected presence. He has all the Hall of Fame confidence in the world, that no one will touch him, despite a series of harsh injuries sustained throughout his long career.
Watching the Patriots’ offense is occasionally witnessing individual brilliance, but much more often it is witnessing an easy rhythm. The receivers and running backs always seem to catch a flick of a throw from Brady in capacious spots of the field. The defense falls into some suggestive formation, or for a choreography of movements miming another stratagem, or for merely a deft shift of the eye, and we, the general audience, are suddenly beholding an understated magic trick.
It’s been out in the open for many years, the NFL’s worst kept secret: the Patriots look to get a step ahead, sometimes in unsavory ways. The corollary to that drive for strategic advantage, though, is the fact that the Patriots really are a step ahead.
But against odds, throughout every twist and turn of the game, the Eagles hold on against Goliath. Fearsome tight end Rob Gronkowski can’t get open over the middle as cornerback Jalen Mills jumps his route, and the Patriots begin to appear a little bit human.
The defense looks ready to deny Brady, but there isn’t really enough yet to believe until Foles launches a perfect back-shoulder long-ball to Eagles standout wideout Alshon Jeffery as he runs into the endzone. Now the question is, how are Nick Foles’ Eagles thriving in the Super Bowl?
This is the question, but it has to be rhetorical at this point. Foles mercilessly battered the stout Minnesota Vikings defense just two weeks before. The man once threw 27 touchdowns to two interceptions in thirteen games of a season. Head Coach Doug Pederson has arrived at this stage on the back of a career’s worth of inducing successful quarterback play, and he has a sneakily worthy acolyte.
Towards the end of the second quarter, the Eagles threaten to pull away, but an unfortunate ball tip by Jeffery leads to an interception, and puts the initiative back into Tom Brady’s hands. Gronkowski hasn’t been afforded any pass interference calls yet, but on 3rd and 6 with yet another incomplete Brady laser, Chris Hogan draws a defensive holding penalty. Right then is where the Eagles’ defense seems to suddenly lose all of its physicality-fueled brinkmanship. For the rest of the game, Brady stretches around and punches through the Eagles’ linebackers and secondary. All the Eagles defensive line can do is line up again and again; there is an inexorable quality to their pressure coming up just short, and almost is not enough against the imperturbable Brady.
The Patriots score, leaving the Eagles up three with a long field and a short clock. But the Eagles keep their foot on the gas. Foles is also putting the opposing defense on their heels, and he brings them into the red zone with time running out. The Patriots gain a fourth down like they did in the beginning of the game, and one suddenly gets the very familiar feeling of… watching the Patriots, as they inch into a pole position with the close of the first lap.
Pederson knows this. He sees the Patriots on his back shoulder, and he decides to ride hard into the dangerous turn. All are left incredulous as Foles catches a touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton. It is nothing other than a fourth down trick play! The Eagles announce that they won’t go quietly.
The second half opens with a resounding reminder that the Patriots won’t either. Brady connected with Gronkowski on four consecutive catches for a touchdown. The third quarter is where the game, which ultimately sets the record for most total offensive yards gained, becomes an absolute shootout. By the time the Patriots take a 33-32 lead early in the final period, the audience has long abandoned the traditional premise that New England will seal a victory by virtue of their preeminence. This is a free-for-all.
As the reins of time tighten, though, so do the offenses. The Eagles face a 4th and 1 with minutes left, down a point. All of a sudden, the tide looks so vulnerable to turning. It’s a reminder—I imagine an especially acute one for Eagles fans—that do-or-die situations often arrive with little warning.
Two linemen catch Foles flush, eliminating his routes of escape from the pocket, and you understand momentarily that the Patriots have anticlimactically seized a decisive advantage. Foles is throwing because he has to.
But then the veil comes off for old Giants fans.
As tight end Zach Ertz catches Foles’ last-ditch pass and gets tackled in mid-air, it becomes apparent that the Eagles are writing this story. Ertz converts a smooth (or smooth to everyone not conflating his effort with Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James’ different catch during the regular season) touchdown pass-and-catch to give the Eagles their final lead. As if on cue, Brady’s last stand is complicated by immense defensive line pressure. Defensive lineman Brandon Graham strip-sacks the general, and Philadelphia collects its first Super Bowl.
The Patriots kept the pace for the entire game, and Tom Brady’s offense deserves credit. But the team never seized the initiative for more than a moment’s time.
The story is of an underdog Eagles team that played with the strategic moxie of a favorite. All a Giants fan can do is applaud quietly and politely—and pray that Odell Beckham won’t hold out of camp until Eli Manning agrees to no more dancing at practice.