MINNEAPOLIS — Eagles fans became accustomed this season to improbable story lines and a regular suspension of logic as their team kept moving forward despite injuries and adversity that should have shelved any hopes for a championship.
Nothing could have prepared the team or its followers, however, for what took place in U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday night in the 52nd and best Super Bowl ever presented by the NFL.
After a drought that stretched all the way from 1960, the Eagles became world champions with a 41-33 win that was fraught with uncertainty from the opening kickoff to the final desperate heave at the whistle.
There really wasn’t a script that unfolded in the game. It was more like a sandlot scrimmage played in a nicer place. Nick Foles matched pass for pass with Tom Brady, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, and the game became a shootout that neither defense could halt.
In the second half, as the Patriots fought back from a 10-point halftime deficit, the teams traded punches and touchdowns in rapid succession. The Pats took the lead early in the fourth quarter, gave it back again, and were then poised to finish the game with one of Brady’s patented late comebacks.
It was only then, with just over two minutes to play, that the script did emerge. The Eagles defense rose up for one great play, with Brandon Graham breaking through to knock the ball away from Brady and into the hands of Derek Barnett.
The Eagles still had to survive one last New England possession, but it was a Hail Mary of a prayer as time expired and the ball fell away at the goal line, beginning the greatest celebration of Philadelphia football since before most of its supporters were born.
There were analysts who expected this game to be a mismatch in favor of a Patriots team that had won five Super Bowls in the previous 17 years, and two of the last three. In the first half, that expectation was expelled as the Eagles took a 22-12 lead, a score that was as odd as the game itself to that point. Both teams botched an extra-point attempt in conditions that were as perfect inside the stadium as they were horrific outside. Both defenses were shredded on occasion by long plays. Both offenses left points on the board.
Those were the similarities. The expected differences, particularly between Brady and Foles never materialized. Brady was sharp from the start, but so was Foles. Brady was able to sidestep pressure, but so was Foles.
The plays that separated the teams more than any others were two gadget plays, one by the Patriots that didn’t work and one by the Eagles, in a ridiculously pressurized spot, that did. Each team ran a play in which the quarterback turned out to be the intended receiver. Even that should have produced the expected mismatch, with the plodding Foles trying to equal the grace of one of the most well-conditioned athletes to play the position.
New England was driving inside the Eagles territory when the Pats called a double-reverse to receiver Danny Amendola while Brady slipped quietly down the right sideline. The play worked perfectly — until Brady dropped the pass and the Patriots drive stalled right there.
Near the end of the half, with New England having cut a 12-point Eagles lead to just three points, it was Doug Pederson’s turn to go for a gadget, and he picked a heck of a spot. The Eagles were fourth-and-one at the one-yard line. Pederson showed his courage simply by going for the touchdown instead of the field goal, but then he really went after it.
Foles shifted behind right tackle tackle Lane Johnson, the ball was direct snapped to running back Corey Clement, and then flipped to tight end Trey Burton. He found Foles completely uncovered and the Eagles quarterback didn’t drop his opportunity. That score gave them the 10-point halftime lead and the way it arrived made you wonder if Pederson wasn’t making a statement, too. It’s only good to call a brilliant play if your team can make it work. And he had the team that did.
As well as the Eagles offense was playing, and as well as Foles was throwing the ball, they just couldn’t shake the Patriots from their back bumper. Brady opened the second half with a series that was almost entirely built around tight end Rob Gronkowski and the lead dwindled to just three points again. Foles took the Eagles 85 yards after that, surviving three third downs along the way, and capping the drive with a perfect pass in the back of the end zone to Corey Clement.
The lead was back up to 10 points, but that was just a mirage. Both teams kept scoring, and when the Eagles could put up only a field goal on one of their drives, Brady pushed the Pats ahead 33-32 on a fade to Gronkowski.
A Zach Ertz acrobatic touchdown answered that, and then the Eagles got the big play from Graham and a few minutes later were dancing on the field.
If there needed to be some divine indication that this was finally their night after decades of waiting, the Eagles came out on the right side of two challenges to second-half touchdowns. Clement was very close to the back line as he gathered his touchdown and Ertz had an odd jarring of the ball as he fell into the end zone with the last touchdown.
Strange things happen with catches when the NFL reviews them and it would have been in keeping with the tortured history of the franchise if one or two of those strange things cost another championship.
Not this time, however. The Eagles were good. The catches were good. The night became immortal and the players right along with it.