Not many people expect the Philadelphia Eagles to last very long in the NFL playoffs this year, but not many people expected them to win the Super Bowl two years ago, either. The Eagles somehow won two home playoff games as an underdog then and upset the New England Patriots with their backup quarterback, Nick Foles, to win their first Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Well, Foles is gone, and the first-choice starter in 2017, Carson Wentz, is healthy, back in his place and playing better than ever. But the big problem now is that Philadelphia is so banged up that just winning its last four games and the championship in the mediocre NFC East is being regarded as a significant accomplishment. How will, or can, they possibly win a playoff game against Seattle on Sunday?
Because of the NFL’s awkward playoff format, the Eagles (9-7) will play host to the Seahawks (11-5) because the Eagles won their division and Seattle is merely a wild-card team, albeit in a better division. Lincoln Financial Field in south Philadelphia is such a snake pit that Seattle is only a slight favorite. But Wentz also might be playing his most inspiring football ever.
“I think he’s grown up as a leader of this team,” says Doug Pederson, the Philadelphia coach and former NFL quarterback. “You’ve seen it here now the last couple of games, how he’s really just put the team on his back and said, ‘Hey, follow me,’ and I think that’s a sign of growth and a sign of maturity.”
But Pederson adds this: “I spent eight years in Green Bay with Brett Favre, and that’s what Brett did. Brett just put the team on his back when the chips were against us and he said, ‘Hey, follow me,’ and that’s what Carson can do.”
Whoa. Pederson favorably compares Wentz with Brett Favre, the gritty legend who threw for 71,838 yards and 508 touchdowns. Wentz, who turned 27 this week, has thrown for only 14,191 yards and 97 touchdowns after the Eagles used their first-round draft choice on him in 2016, and his last two seasons ended early because of knee and back injuries.
But Wentz is healthy now, and grateful: “Grateful for my health, grateful to be out here with the guys in these big meaningful games. Grateful to be playing into January,” he said. The Eagles were 5-7 after losing their third straight game on 23 November to the lowly Dolphins, but Wentz has helped a patchwork unit that now includes former practice-squad players eke into the postseason.
“Even when there have been a few drives where they are punting the ball, he is not frustrated, he’s patient, he’s making good decisions,” says Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles’ veteran safety, “and I think that’s what we’ve needed in these games. Nobody has been playing better than he has.”
Wentz used the word “grateful” no fewer than 10 times in a news conference after Sunday’s victory at the Meadowlands, where the Eagles have won 11 of their last 13 meetings with the Giants. He was wearing a black cap with a Philadelphia logo and champions stitched on the front, as well as a green T-shirt under his suit jacket with, “The East Is Not Enough”.
He smiled when he said, “I think my wife is mad that I’m not wearing the full suit she picked out. But we’re still hungry. That’s the concept. We’re not done.”
Wentz is seemingly bigger than his listed measurements of 6ft 5in and 237lbs. He is not as fast or agile as Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson – who is? – but Wentz rushed for 243 yards this year. And he has an amazing arm: He rolled to his right and threw a perfect touchdown pass to Joshua Perkins on the other sideline about 50 yards away.
In becoming the first Eagles’ quarterback to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season, Wentz has thrown for 1,199 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in the last four weeks, to a lineup relying on its second tight end, fourth running back and third set of wide receivers. The Pro Bowl right guard, Brandon Brooks, injured his shoulder Sunday and was lost for the season, joining All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson on the sidelines.
“It’s just fun to see guys step in big moments like that – guys who were last year on the practice squad,” Wentz says. “For them to step up in the way they have, and for guys to make plays, it’s been so cool to see. I think that’s what makes it that much more fun to do what we did, and then hopefully we can go do something special.”
The three-game losing streak that preceded the four-game winning streak included a 17-9 loss at home on 24 November to Seattle. Stalked by a Seahawks’ defense that finished as the seventh-worst defense in the league, Wentz was sacked three times, threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles, one on a botched handoff exchange.
After the Eagles lost the following week to the Dolphins, the only reason they were still in the hunt for a playoff berth was because the Dallas Cowboys had won only one more game than they had, and New York and Washington stank. Wentz led the Eagles to comeback victories over New York and Washington, then threw for 313 yards in a victory over the flat Cowboys.
“We don’t give up. We play for 60 minutes,” veteran defensive lineman Fletcher Cox said. “The coaches are always on us hard. We depend on the leaders to lead and we’ve been doing a great job of that. Just hats off to Carson. He’s been doing a really good job of taking care of that side of the football.”
Foles signed as a free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars after last season because the Eagles had made a commitment to Wentz, then etched it in stone in July with a four-year, $128m contract extension through 2024. Foles will always be a hero in Philadelphia for winning a Super Bowl – and Wentz had been seen until this year as the elite quarterback who got hurt.
He is fine now, and he sounds more appreciative for another opportunity, too. He says: “I think the last few years give you time to reflect and think about this.”
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