PHILADELPHIA — The Eagles lost two games without their starting quarterback, then plodded to a win in the season finale against the Giants’ backups. They saw themselves drop to the No. 4 favorite to win Super Bowl LVII despite having won 14 games, tied for the most in the NFL.
Were the Eagles a fraud? Did the 14 wins even matter?
The players felt the hate. After they routed the Giants, 38-7, on Saturday, they had a message for the haters:
“We here. We here, man,” Haason Reddick said. “We’re laying it out on the line. We want this thing. Badly. We’re showing we’re going to dominate. At least, we’ll try to be as dominant as we can be.”
Before the season the Eagles weren’t picked by most pundits to win the division, and they certainly weren’t expected to win a playoff game.
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They’ve been ticked that they weren’t picked.
“We’ve been like this all year,” Reddick said.
Did he understand why people questioned their legitimacy after losses in Games 15 and 16 against the Cowboys and Saints?
“Most definitely. We had lost two games in the last quarter of the season,” Reddick said.
So what, he said. The Birds earned the No. 1 seed and the bye week that came with it, but, in their eyes, they’d earned very little respect. They spent two weeks stewing, ears to the ground, hackles raised.
“They were ready,” coach Nick Sirianni told me. “They were snarling.”
They were angry.
“We hear everything, man. We hear what y’all say. We hear what the people [are] saying. And media. Fans,” Reddick said. “Don’t think we don’t hear it all.”
Reddick kept pausing to sip from a small plastic bottle of concentrated pickle juice. A team source indicated that the linebacker needed an IV after the game. He’d played so hard that he started cramping, even in 38-degree weather.
Expect the Birds to be similarly motivated when the 49ers visit Sunday afternoon for the NFC championship game. They opened as 1 1/2-point favorites — as a home team, with few health issues, and with 15 wins, against a team with a rookie quarterback that managed just 19 points, at home, against the overrated Cowboys.
It’s not quite as insulting as being 3-point home underdogs, as was the case when the Vikings visited in January 2018 for the championship game, but it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a 15-win team that just scored 38 points and didn’t have to play last week.
Reddick remembers 2017, and the disrespect, and underdog masks right tackle Lane Johnson and former Eagles defensive end Chris Long wore as the Birds endured insult after insult in that playoff run.
Reddick is a Camden, N.J., native, and he was a Cardinals rookie out of Temple in 2017. His roots also help Reddick understand the anxiety that grips Philadelphia sports fans, especially when their teams are supposed to succeed: the 2001 Eagles’ playoff loss to Tampa Bay, the injury-cursed Golden Era Phillies from 2007-11, and the decade of unfulfilled Process promises the Sixers have made.
He was desperate to not join that litany of losers, and so he collected 1 1/2 sacks Saturday and now has 17 1/2 in 18 games for his hometown team.
Jason Kelce and Fletcher Cox, key components on the 2017 Super Bowl championship team, are eager, too, to not become the Phillies 2.0.
The 92-win 2008 Phillies won the World Series and the 93-win 2009 Phillies won a second straight pennant, but the 97-win 2010 Phillies lost in the NLCS and the 2011 Phillies set a franchise record with 102 wins, then lost in the first round of the playoffs.
After coach Doug Pederson declared that title-hunting would be “the new norm,” the Birds got a lucky win in the 2018 playoffs, lost in the first round in 2019, then missed the postseason in 2020, and Pederson got fired. A loss Saturday would have been as gutting a disappointment as any in recent memory — possibly as gutting as the 1964 Phillies, who scarred four generations of Philly fans.
They were delighted and relieved Saturday night that the Eagles presented the best version of themselves.
“We’ve proven throughout the regular season, and obviously tonight, that we can be a very good team. We have a very good defense. A very good offense. We have good coaches, good special teams,” Kelce said. “We can be a dominant force ... when we don’t beat ourselves.”
That’s what Sirianni’s been saying since a win in Arizona left the Eagles at 5-0 and proved they were, at that moment, the best team in the conference, if not the NFL.
“Tonight? That was just a message to us,” said Cox, who graded out at 72.3 on profootballfocus.com against the Giants, his third-best score in his 18 games. “We’ve got to be who we are. Everybody showed up. The good players played good.”
Really good. And they’ll have to do it again Sunday afternoon, said Kelce, if the Eagles plan on returning to the Super Bowl.
“I don’t think we had to do what we did tonight to prove that,” Kelce said. “But maybe it’s a nice reminder.”