The Student

Foles-inspired Eagles upset Patriots in record-breaking Super Bowl LII

The Philadelphia Eagles banished memories of their defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots in 2005, winning a thrilling shootout 41-33 in Super Bowl LII against the same opponents, to claim their first ever Super Bowl title on a night when records galore fell in Minneapolis.

Victory for the unfancied Eagles completed a remarkable season punctuated with adversity, as backup quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, deputising for the injured Carson Wentz, threw for 373 yards to deny the Patriots a record-equalling sixth title.

Tom Brady, Foles’ opposite number and the newly crowned NFL MVP, could not have done much more himself, tossing a Super Bowl record 505 yards passing and three touchdowns in the most incredible losing effort you are ever likely to witness.

On a night when both sides combined for in excess of 1,000 total yards (1,151), this was not a game for the defensive purists.

But its topsy-turvy nature had fans on the edge of their seats until a Brandon Graham sack-forced fumble iced the contest with 2:09 to play in the fourth quarter. This was sporting drama at its finest.

In a game that produced just one punt and one sack, it was Graham who made the decisive contribution to deny Brady and Bill Belichick a third Super Bowl win in four seasons.

Masterful play calling by Eagles head coach Doug Pederson also played its part, as Foles trumped Brady in a contest that descended into an offensive battle between two signal callers who matched each other stride for stride.

Despite losing the coin toss, the Eagles put together a polished opening drive that set the tempo for a near-perfect display on offense. Far from proving too big an occasion for Foles, the 29-year-old gunslinger stepped up and then some.

Strikes to wideout Alshon Jeffrey on a key 3rd and 4 and another on 3rd and 12 to Torrey Smith, under pressure from former Eagle corner Eric Rowe, set the tone.

This was clinical football, even if it gave us a glimpse of what was to come as New England continuously failed to get off the field on third down.

As Philadelphia continued to move the chains, the Patriots began to haemorrhage yards on the ground as London-born runner Jay Ajayi joined the party plundering forward for a new set of downs.

This was hardly the start Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, likely calling his final game before taking the vacant Detroit Lions head coaching gig, would have wanted.

But as undrafted rookie running back Corey Clement set up first and goal for the Eagles, New England would have taken encouragement from their league leading red zone defense in 2017.

Indeed an incomplete pass intended for Jeffrey brought the field goal unit out onto the field with 7:58 remaining in the opening frame.

Rookie kicker Jake Elliott, on what would be a record-breaking night for the Illinois native, duly converted from 25-yards to hand the Eagles an early 3-0 lead.

The Patriots though began in ominous fashion on their opening possession with 40-year-old Brady, who continues to defy Father Time, connecting with big strikes to James White for 15 yards and wideout Chris Hogan for 27.

Matchup nightmare Rob Gronkowski would haul in his only pass of the first half for nine yards off play-action, before White would move ahead to the eight yard line as New England looked set to counter immediately with points of their own.

Key stops though from Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham and defensive back Jalen Mills would force New England into a near identical 26-yard field goal try for Stephen Gostkowski and he knotted the game up at three apiece. Brady was flawless on his opening drive, going 4/6 for 58 yards.

A key feature of the Eagles offense in this one was the expected use of run-pass option (RPO) plays, an area that the Patriots’ defensive unit has struggled to deal with throughout this season.

But rather than deploying the traditional slant routes, Pederson’s aggression was in evidence as he dialled up some inventive play calls to gouge the New England defense early.

Former Patriot workhorse LeGarrette Blount, a two-time champion from his time in Foxborough, served a fresh reminder of what his former teammates were missing, powering his way through missed tackles in the open field.

And that intensity did not subside. With the run game bringing play-action into play, Foles tossed a huge 34-yard touchdown pass to Jeffrey as Philadelphia quickly cashed in on a three play, 77-yard drive to register six for the first time on the night.

Foles’ start was imperious, connecting on 8/11 passes for 102 yards and a score, but Elliott demonstrated the unpredictable nature of extra point attempts in today’s NFL, skewing his kick wide as the score remained 9-3.

Belichick and Patricia made an adjustment moving cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a former University of South Carolina teammate of Jeffery’s, to cover the 6ft3 receiver for the remainder of the game. It did much to stymy his production, albeit in a losing cause.

The scene was clearly already set for an offensive shootout with neither defense able to bring the heat as had been anticipated.

Brady too was carving up the Philadelphia secondary, capitalising on blown coverage against the Eagles’ zone defense to find Danny Amendola on a huge third down completion to keep the chains moving.

A quick run by White as New England deployed the hurry-up offense threatened to tire the Eagles as the first frame wound to a close, but the Patriots failed to add points as an identical 26-yard field goal effort by Gostkowski slammed against the post off a botched snap. 9-3 it stayed.

Finally New England brought the heat to rattle Foles on a blitz, though he displayed tremendous awareness to throw the ball away under duress by Trey Flowers. Donnie Jones then delivered the sole punt of the ball game for either side.

Both defenses had been found wanting early, yet there was no shortage of physicality on show as Patriots wideout Brandin Cooks found to his detriment. The speedy receiver was drilled on his blindside by Malcolm Jenkins and, nervously unresponsive, he left the game and did not return.

Jenkins was a ball hawk on this series breaking another route to force an incomplete pass. Jim Schwartz, the Eagles defensive coordinator, had surprisingly, but shrewdly, placed Jenkins in man-to-man coverage with White and it was paying dividends.

However signs that New England were rattled early were clearly visible as they gambled, and failed, on a brave 4th and 5 instead of calling for punter Ryan Allen.

The incomplete pass to tight end Gronkowski gave Foles and the Eagles short field and they took full advantage with a second score of the night.

It needed Foles to be at the top of his game mind. After Ajayi had burst forward off the perimeter, Foles connected with Ertz for 19 yards on a long 3rd and 7 to keep the series alive.

And undeterred by missing Jeffrey initially, Foles dialled up his speedy receiver again for an incredible 22-yard reception, despite the presence of double coverage, as Philadelphia showed their mettle.

Then, with 8:48 to play in the first half, Blount butchered the Patriots defense striding his way through a couple of missed tackles to find the endzone. It owed much to the Eagles’ athletic offensive line’s ability to seal the edge, a score that opened up a handsome 15-3 lead in Minnesota.

Philadelphia rolled the dice, led by their aggressive play-caller Pederson, opting for a two-point try but Jeffrey could not haul in the pass on this occasion.

Both sides had seen their pass rush stunted by Foles and Brady’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly off the snap. Neither side seemed to have the answers defensively at this stage on a night when records tumbled.

New England’s inability to punch it in for six early would prove costly though. Again a promising drive stalled with Gostkowski converting a 45-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 12 as half time approached.

The Eagles, though, looked in the mood for more. Smith corralled the ball for a huge 10-yard gain before Ajayi pierced through up the middle gaining vital yards after contact.

But that drive would come to a shuddering halt when the first of just two total turnovers occurred with 5:00 minutes left in the second.

It was fortuitous but New England were not about to pass up the invitation. Foles’ pass slammed against Jeffrey’s hands and landed in the clutches of Patriots safety Duron Harmon inside his own 20-yard line.

Enter Brady for a clutch 90-yard drive before the interval. A Mills holding call in coverage, working against Hogan certainly helped, and a darting run by Dion Lewis delivered a new set of downs with 3:30 to play.

Former Buffalo Bills receiver Hogan was about to get the better of Mills over the middle again, this time for 40 yards, as the Patriots threatened their first touchdown of the contest.

And it duly arrived as White raced into the endzone as the two-minute warning loomed. It owed a great deal to guard Shaq Mason getting to the second level to seal the lane for White. Gostkowski missed the extra point effort on an indifferent night for special teams.

Meanwhile, on a huge 3rd and 3 indicative of the Patriots’ struggles on third down, Clement charged his way through more missed tackles in the open field to the tune of 55 yards. It was an incredible play in the circumstances.

As the Patriots continued to give up big plays, their red zone defense needed to come into its own. Rather it had no answers for one of the most inventive play-calls in recent Super Bowl memory.

Earlier in the game New England had tried, and failed, to convert on a trick play of their own; Amendola had turned passer but Brady could not haul in the pass.

There were no such problems here, but the sheer guile and audacity of the call in the circumstances made Philadelphia’s fourth down attempt all the more impressive. And it was peerlessly executed.

Running back Clement took the direct snap, handed off for tight end Trey Burton on the end around and Burton launched a pass to Foles for the touchdown.

Unbeknownst to a static Patriots defense, Foles had ghosted in behind to become the first player ever to pass and catch a touchdown in the same Super Bowl. Suddenly it had become a two score game again at 22-12.

However if there is one thing the Patriots specialise in it is recovering from deficits, so a 10-point difference was hardly going to faze Brady and Belichick.

Just as well really as Gronkowski came alive on the opening possession of the second half having been a passenger in the first two quarters.

One catch in the game suddenly became four as Brady connected on strikes to his huge tight end for 25 and 24 yards respectively, before coming up big on third down.

And, after White had ploughed ahead to the five-yard line, the Patriots were in the endzone again as Brady found Gronkowski who double moved Ronald Darby for the touchdown. Gostkowski added the extras and suddenly it was a three point game at 22-19.

Foles looked anything but fazed though. Again the Eagles demonstrated their penchant for clutch third down conversions (10/16 in the game) with Agholor spinning away from the attentions of Johnson Bademosi to convert on 3rd and 6.

On the ground, Blount continued to dominate with the run making the Patriots’ decision to leave cornerback Malcolm Butler, the hero of Super Bowl XLIX three years ago, on the sideline puzzling.

Butler was relegated to special teams and did not face a single defensive snap despite New England doing little to slow Foles’ prolific passing or the ground game.

Signs that it might be the Eagles’ night gained added credence when Clement was adjudged to have kept both of his feet in bounds on route to hauling in a 22-yard catch from Foles at the back of the endzone.

The so-called ‘team of destiny’ had put together a tidy 11 play, 85-yard drive but controversy surrounded the call on the field which was ruled a touchdown by Gene Steratore and his crew.

NBC colour commentator Cris Collinsworth felt that the call should not have stood owing to the lack of clarity as to whether Clement had completed the process – that is conclusively having possession with both feet in bounds. But nonetheless the call stood after review.

A classic game of inches. Significantly it restored the Eagles’ two-score lead with Elliott chipping over the extra point. 29-19 with 7:48 to go.

Brady answered immediately, however. A vital third down conversion for Amendola was followed by a 26-yard touchdown pass to Hogan to complete a rapid seven play, 75-yard drive. Game on again with Gostkowski bringing the game to within three with 3:55 remaining.

In the process, Brady – playing in his eighth Super Bowl, more than the entire Eagles 53 man roster (seven combined Super Bowl appearances) – passed 10,000 passing yards in the postseason, becoming the first player to reach that feat.

Foles though kept pace with Brady, continuing his accomplished display on the grandest stage of them all. His RPO plays were not dependent on the expected slant routes, but incorporated fades and outroutes as Agholor hauled in one such example for 24 yards.

With Jeffrey being marshalled on the opposite side, the Eagles were finding plenty of ways to get Agholor involved – this time on an end around with lead blockers getting to the second level as the Eagles advanced to the 23-yard line.

With 15 minutes to go, Super Bowl LII had already smashed the record for most total yards in a Super Bowl (955) overtaking Super Bowl XXII between the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos in 1987, with neither side relenting in the tempo that had been set from the opening series.

Rarely do Super Bowl’s follow such scripts, speaking volumes for the paucity of defense from both sides. Remarkably, at the end of three quarters, neither quarterback had been sacked and both sides had accounted for just one takeaway.

With the Eagles in possession to begin the fourth, the Patriots did finally generate a stop on third down. The nimble Marquis Flowers jumped the slant route intended for Agholor for a loss of eight.

Yet the Eagles were still in field goal range and Elliott notched up a record of his own, converting the longest field-goal by a rookie kicker in Super Bowl history – 42-yards – to extend Philadelphia’s lead to six, 32-26.

Rex Burkhead and Hogan combined to set up a 3rd and 3, before Amendola – dubbed Danny “play-off” Amendola for his history of clutch play-off performances – hauled in a crucial catch in motion for the first down.

The Patriots were meticulous once again with White rushing for a new set of downs to set up 1st and goal with under 10 minutes to play.

Little surprise, then, that Brady, without Cooks and Julian Edelman, sought Gronkowski again and the 28-year-old made no mistake working against Darby for the score. A mismatch if there ever was one.

With protection, time to source the field and working against man coverage, Brady looked in his element, connecting for his third strike of the night. Suddenly the Patriots had grabbed the lead for the first time with Gostkowski’s extra point putting them up 33-32.

Undeterred by playing from behind for the first time, the Eagles looked every bit as sharp as they had done through three quarters.

An Ajayi burst owed much to the athletic play by center Jason Kelce and offensive tackle Lane Johnson as Pederson’s Eagles continued to churn out yards on the ground. The Patriots had no answers.

This one was still delicately poised though. A huge 3rd and 6 was converted by Ertz for his fifth catch of the night.

Again the balanced, aggressive play-calling of Eagles coach Pederson came to the fore at the crucial time. After Devin McCourty’s huge third down stop, the second-year coach gambled on 4th and 1 and again it was Ertz who stepped up to keep the drive alive. It was a drive that saw the game surpass an NFL record for most purpose yards (1,081).

And Foles’ sensational MVP performance was soon to be capped by two highlight-reel throws, first to Agholor in the tightest of windows and then to Ertz for the go ahead score with 2:21 to play.

The Ertz touchdown was reviewed and again the call from New York went in favour of the Eagles to re-establish their lead, 38-33.

Ertz had been ruled a runner by the officials so the call stood. Pederson unsurprisingly went for two but failed to convert.

At 38-33, Super Bowl LII would go to the wire but not without incredible drama in the dying embers of the game.

Brady went to work hoping to add to his 11 game winning drives, five of which have come in Super Bowls, and few would have bet against him adding to that impressive list on a night where defense did not appear to win championships. Or so it would seem.

Graham had other ideas, writing himself into Eagles folklore with the biggest play of the night at the biggest time to generate the Eagles’ first forced turnover with 2:09 to play.

Credit must be given to Schwartz for moving Graham, an outside rusher, inside, enabling Graham to work in tandem with edge-rusher and former Patriot Chris Long.

Far from simply collapsing the pocket and getting inside penetration, Graham also stripped Brady of the football and allowed teammate Derek Barnett to recover.

The Eagles smartly milked the clock, forced the Patriots to use their allotted timeouts, and then kicked a field-goal to make it an eight point game just as it was a year ago when New England forced overtime with a two-point conversion against Atlanta.

Trouble was the Patriots, shaken up and looking like a beaten side, could not muster one final 90-yard drive to snatch victory.

They nearly did, mind, and it would have been typical Brady had it come off. A last ditch Hail Mary effort fell agonizingly short of the posse of receivers gathered in the endzone.

But Philadelphia, who had played with the lead for the majority of the contest, and who out fought, out thought and out coached the Patriots, deserved the acclaim of registering a first Super Bowl win at the third time of asking.

Pederson’s play-calling was incisive, inventive and anything but cautious. It put the ball in Foles’ hands, generated confidence from the first drive to the last and was nearly faultless throughout.

Far from being the also-ran back-up, Foles delivered the performance of his life to put the brakes on the Patriots’ quest for a third title in four seasons.

Brady’s 505 yards and the Patriots’ 33 points would win most games but not a game as thrilling and as ridiculous as this one. Philadelphia got the decisive pressure up the middle when it mattered, generating the big play at the most opportune time.

Philadelphia could have been overwhelmed once it became clear the game was destined to be a shootout. But they stood defiant against one of sport’s greatest ever dynasties and deservedly triumphed.

The Brady – Belichick – Patriots dynasty is bruised but not tarnished by defeat here. Indeed, there is no shame in going down to a side like the Eagles who defied the underdog tag all season to reign supreme.

Super Bowl LII will go down as a classic. Not many go toe to toe with Brady, 40 or not, and come out on top, such was the vintage form he had displayed in 2017.

Foles and the Eagles did and emerged to tell a tale that will be recounted for years to come by all those privileged enough to witness it.

 

Image courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

 

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