Jason Peters

Eagles turned a cliche into a badge of honor

AP Images

Eagles turned a cliche into a badge of honor

A few seconds after Nick Foles ran onto the field for pregame warmups on Saturday afternoon before the divisional playoff game, Carson Wentz emerged from the same tunnel. Wearing an all-black Eagles sweatsuit and a green Eagles beanie, Wentz hobbled his way past onlookers with a single crutch tucked up under his right arm.

A reminder of what could have been.

More importantly, a reminder of how improbable all of this has been.

The Eagles are one win away from going to the Super Bowl without their franchise quarterback, their Hall of Fame left tackle, their starting middle linebacker, their most dynamic offensive playmaker, their original kicker and their special teams captain.

If a few months ago someone would have told you the Eagles were going to lose all of those players and still be in the NFC championship game, you probably would have laughed in their face. You probably would have called the men in the white coats to come and take them away.

But here we are.

The question is, how did we get here? How the hell is this even possible?

Well, it starts with coaching. Remember when that attention-seeking bozo said Doug Pederson was the least qualified head coach in NFL history? (see story.) Oops. If Pederson pulls this off, winning a Super Bowl with Foles and a group of other backups, it'll be one of the greatest achievements in modern coaching history. All season, his players have believed in him and he's believed in his players.

The front office deserves a ton of credit, too. Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas built this roster. They stockpiled talent at the back end of the depth chart. They overturned the team from a year ago. They brought in the exact right mix of vets and players yearning to prove themselves on one-year deals. They drafted well. They gambled by adding who some considered to be a problem child running back at the deadline and relied on a veteran locker room to put him in his place. At every single juncture, they pushed the right buttons.

And then the players believed.

They took that clichéd "next man up" philosophy and wore it on their chests like a badge of honor. The second-year left tackle stepped up. The linebacker who once requested an offseason trade acted like a true professional and started balling. The veteran backup quarterback who was once named the starter in Philly for "the next thousand years" was able to block out the haters and keep his confidence high.

The injured guys didn't go anywhere either. Wentz was finally allowed on the sideline against the Falcons and was able to help Foles settle down. Jason Peters was on the field before Saturday's game, offering advice and words of encouragement for his fellow offensive linemen. Jordan Hicks and Chris Maragos are always present in the locker room. Darren Sproles met up with the team during its week-long trip to Southern California and flew back with his teammates to be here for the stretch run.

This is a team. This is a dance-together, put-it-on-the-bulletin board, wear-the-dog-masks-together team. They were underdogs against the Falcons. They're underdogs against Vikings, who have dealt with a couple huge losses themselves this season.

With one more win, the Eagles are going to be underdogs in LII in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.

They're doing all this without Wentz and Peters and Hicks and Sproles and Maragos and Sturgis and without just about anyone outside of the NovaCare Complex believing in them even a little bit. That's why it's all so crazy.

So of course they're going to be underdogs from here on out.

Just bet against them at your own risk.

2014 Nick Foles played with a far inferior offensive line

2014 Nick Foles played with a far inferior offensive line

Nick Foles is a changed man. The sixth-year veteran is older, wiser, more experienced; all attributes the Eagles stand to benefit from coming down the home stretch with their backup signal caller.

There's also something about Foles that might look different in his second stint with the Eagles. Don't be surprised if you see a more confident, poised quarterback in the pocket, too.

After all, the Eagles may actually be able to protect Foles this time around.

When last we saw Foles in an Eagles uniform in 2014, fans were not happy. One season after setting a since-broken NFL record with a 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he was leading the league in giveaways through nine weeks. Furthermore, Foles looked skittish, unwilling to step up in the pocket, and developing the terrible habit of throwing off his back foot.

Most observers placed the fault squarely on Foles, chalking it up to a former third-round draft pick's inevitable regression. However, extenuating circumstances were at least partially to blame.

The Eagles' offensive line was, in a word, a mess.

In 2013, when Foles was busy making history, all five starting offensive linemen played in all 16 games. The unit paved the way not only for a gunslinger in the passing attack, but a rushing championship for running back LeSean McCoy. It was the best line in the league, without a doubt.

Foles would not be so lucky the following year. Lane Johnson was suspended for the first four games, while his replacement at right tackle, Allen Barbre, suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. Left guard Evan Mathis was also hurt in the opener, missing the next seven games, and Jason Kelce went down in Week 3, missing four. Four starting-caliber players, out.

If Foles wasn't feeling comfortable in the pocket, that might be because there often was none. The Eagles were relying on the likes of Andrew Gardner, Matt Tobin, David Mold and Dennis Kelly for much of the season.

Lines don't get much more patchwork than that.

Foles wound up with a broken collarbone just as the O-line was beginning to get healthy. Before that, he was taking unnaturally deep dropbacks, throwing off his back foot and generally getting rid of the football as quickly as possible in the interest of self-preservation.

Not surprisingly, Foles' touchdown-to-interception ratio dipped dramatically to 13-10, along with three fumbles lost -- totaling 13 turnovers in eight games. Also no coincidence, his completion percentage dipped from 64.0 to 59.8, and his yards per attempt from 9.1 to 7.0.

When Foles was traded to the Rams the following offseason, he didn't fare any better. But while we weren't following his progress nearly as close, we know the Rams were in the midst of 10 straight losing seasons with offensive finishes no better than 21st. The franchise was a career killer. Look no further than Sam Bradford's improvement with the Eagles and Vikings for evidence.

Foles may not have been as good as the hype surrounding his magical 27-2 campaign. He also isn't as horrible as he looked with the Rams, and he probably isn't even as bad as his final season with the Eagles seemed at the time, either.

This is not to absolve Foles of his failures completely. Clearly, he is somebody whose success is dependent on the supporting cast around him to some extent. And by the end of that '14 season, he was most definitely feeling some false pressure and making unforced errors as a result.

That's not the type of performance the Eagles should expect now, not regularly at least, so long as the line holds up. Left tackle Jason Peters is missing from the lineup, but this unit is still far superior, provided there are no more major injuries -- perhaps even if there are.

Foles has plenty of weapons at his disposal in 2017, too. No McCoy in the backfield, but Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement is a quality stable of ball carriers, while receivers Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor are all capable of bailing out their quarterback in the passing game.

Yet, the biggest difference is up front. If Foles is protected, he's more than capable of dissecting opposing defenses. We've seen that firsthand.

Foles may not be a world beater or break a bunch more records. But as long as he's upright, the Eagles have a a shot -- and this time, they have a legitimate shot at keeping him on his feet.

Doug Pederson adamant Eagles can overcome the ultimate loss

Doug Pederson adamant Eagles can overcome the ultimate loss

Remember when the Eagles lost Jason Peters and Jordan Hicks and Darren Sproles and plenty of folks thought the season was over? 

Doug Pederson does. 

Sure, this isn't exactly an apples-to-oranges comparison. Losing a left tackle or a middle linebacker or a running back isn't the same thing as losing an MVP-level quarterback entering his prime. It would be unfair to suggest they're the same. 

But Pederson has seen his team hurdle over every obstacle this year. With the biggest one yet now in front of it, it's his job to convince his team it can do it again. 

On Monday, Pederson tried to convince fans who have prematurely canceled Christmas. 

"To the fans out there, you can't lose faith," Pederson said. "This has been a resilient football team all season long. If there's ever an opportunity for me as a head football coach to rally the troops, now might be the time. 

"We just came off a tremendous victory to win the NFC East. Guys are riding extremely high. It's a little bittersweet. But you know what? We've got the Giants this week and we've got an opportunity to ... if you win Sunday, you get a first-round bye. There's still a lot to play for. That's what's exciting about this season. We're still playing for the opportunity to hopefully be in that game."

Pederson, just after delivering news of a torn ACL, was adamant that his team can overcome the loss of Carson Wentz

"It sure can," he said. "Heck yeah." 

It won't be easy. Before leaving Sunday's game, Wentz threw his 33rd touchdown pass of the 2017 season, breaking the Eagles' franchise record that had stood since 1961. But more than touchdown passes, Wentz made special plays seemingly every week, plays that only a handful of quarterbacks in the world can make. 

Nick Foles is a pretty adequate backup, and he did a nice job when called upon against the Rams. But he ain't Carson Wentz. Everyone, including his teammates, knows that. 

It's just that they don't have time to wallow in the loss of their superstar leader. Next weekend might be huge. 

A win against the Giants would earn the Eagles a first-round bye. A win against the Giants, paired with a Vikings loss, would earn them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. After another obstacle was dropped in front of them on Monday morning, the Eagles can still help themselves. 

Pederson's role in all this is vital. He has to be the guy to hold it all together.  

"It's huge," he said. "I think even the guys felt it after the game yesterday. We just rally and we support the next guy. From my standpoint, you don't waver, man. You don't let people see you sweat, you just put your head down and you go to work. You get everybody ready to play. It was evident yesterday when Carson was out of the game, you saw Nick come in and come back and lead us to victory in that game. That right there is a great step in the right direction."