The good folks in Las Vegas who bring you point spreads are making Philly a major dog in the Super Bowl, but don’t count these Eagles out.
No matter how many times we’ve seen underdogs beat a team that was labeled one of the best ever, we never remember. Just two years ago, I remember reading that the Bucs didn’t have a six pack’s chance in a frat house of beating the Raiders, and you know what happened in that game.
The year before that, it was a perennial pushover with a coach who’d failed in Cleveland and a second-year quarterback taking on the defending champion Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf. That was when New England became the Team Formerly Known as the Patsies.
So here we go again, with one team a prohibitive underdog, a team from the NFC, the NFL’s version of Division I-AA, going against those Patriots.
Don’t believe it. As great as the Patriots are — and they are indeed one of the best teams you’re likely to see in this age of parity — the Eagles have a shot. They do because they’ve already done something remarkable.
They won the NFC in a year when they were supposed to win it, when all the pressure in every game was on them. In the NFC championship game, they had to beat not only Michael Vick, the most athletic quarterback we’ve ever seen, but their own history of three straight NFC championship game losses.
It was a recipe for disaster, a team that was not allowed to lose playing against one that had nothing to lose. No one who hasn’t been in the Eagles’ situation can understand the enormous pressure that they were under and how difficult it was to relax and play their game.
It’s like missing every four-foot putt you’ve tried all day, then needing a four-footer on the final hole to win the U.S. Open. You can say you’re confident, and if you actually do, it’s because you were born without a memory.
The Eagles carried all those missed putts into the stadium with them, lined up against the best rushing team in the league, and didn’t just win, they dominated. No one panicked, no one tried to do too much, no one got out of the game plan. They just played the game they planned to play.
Until Sunday, the experts said that the Philly coaching staff was deficient in big games. But they came with a brilliant defensive scheme designed to shut down Vick and the Falcons’ running game, and they did it. On offense, they faced a front seven that had been one of the best in pressuring opposing passers, and Philly again shut them down, giving quarterback Donovan McNabb enough time in the pocket to read “War and Peace.”
When you can protect the passer and stop the run, you’ve got a chance, I don’t care who you’re playing. The Eagles can do both. They’re got a chance.
And while we’re busy calling Bill Belichick and his defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, defensive geniuses, we would do well to look at what Jim Johnson, the Philadelphia minister of defense, has done.
In his team’s first playoff game, he schemed Daunte Culpepper, who passed for more yardage than Peyton Manning this year, out of existence. Randy Moss, who will admit to being the greatest wideout in the history of the species, had no impact on the game.
A week later, Johnson made Vick disappear. In the first half, the Vikings got off a few runs, but in the second half, Vick got nothing. That’s not easy to do, and it shows not just the ability to draw up a game plan, but the smarts to tweak it on the fly, to make halftime adjustments, to plug whatever leaks the other guys find before they let in the flood.
Offensively, the Eagles are just fine, thanks to McNabb and a powerful offensive line. And there’s a chance that in two weeks, they’ll have Terrell Owens back, and he’s a guy who can break a game open.
I’m not saying they’ll win. But I am saying that they’re not the huge underdogs everyone thinks they are. They are by far the class of the NFC. They showed they can stand up under pressure. They have a great defensive coordinator and a hard-hitting defense. They have Brian Westbrook, as versatile a running back as there is. They can stuff the run when they put their minds to it.
They’re in the Super Bowl. They have a chance.
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