Take a look at that smile. That might’ve been the first smile Nick Foles cracked on a football field since the Eagles' offense was moving up and down the field on the Giants in mid-December.
That smile may have been the turning point for the Eagles’ season — right after Foles threw what should have been a backbreaking interception, one that would’ve been the beginning of the end.
Foles’ struggles heading into the playoffs were well documented. Obsessed over, in fact. And the backup quarterback was off to another mediocre start in the Eagles’ divisional round game against the Falcons. After completing 46.9 percent of his passes for 4.1 yards per attempt with one touchdown and two interceptions in the final two regular-season games, Foles started 9 of 12 for a meager 66 yards.
The numbers didn’t quite capture how ineffective he looked. Two-thirds of the offensive production to that point had come from running backs or running the football. Worst of all, his team was losing.
Then, in the second quarter, another Foles pass sailed over the head of its intended target, as was becoming the norm, this time into the waiting arms of Falcons safety Keanu Neal. A pick likely would’ve put Atlanta in scoring range, possibly been returned for a touchdown. Either result would’ve been devastating.
Neal didn’t come down with the errant throw. The ball bounced off the defender’s knee, deflected back toward the line of scrimmage, some 10 yards through the air, into the hands of an alert Torrey Smith. The Eagles wideout turned a botched turnover into a 20-yard gain, which helped set up a field goal two plays later to cut the Falcons’ lead to one.
The points seemed big at the time. Vastly more important was the impact the play seemingly had on Foles.
For weeks, Foles was held under the microscope. First, his overall competency was the issue, which wasn’t unusual for a journeyman replacing an MVP-caliber signal caller on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. As Foles struggled, his confidence was questioned, and the concern became whether the pressure of the situation getting to him was a larger problem than his ability.
How much validity there was to the latter idea, we’ll never know. There were plenty of built-in excuses for Foles’ earlier performances. He didn’t have much work with the first-team offense. Game plans and practices were dialed back the final two weeks of the regular season. The elements — particularly strong winds — had been a factor for all quarterbacks at Lincoln Financial Field.
All we can say for certain, anecdotally, is Foles looked like a different player after Smith came up with that haphazard pass. The sixth-year veteran was 10 for 13 for 86 yards, including the near-interception, and led one scoring drive on his first four possessions. The rest of the game, he was 13 of 17 for 160 yards, with three scoring drives out of four possessions.
As disastrous as that play could’ve been, maybe it loosened Foles up. I mean, it was legitimately funny, as long as you weren’t so angry by the way things were transpiring for the Eagles, you could allow yourself to have a sense of humor about it. Maybe when the weight of the world felt like it was on his shoulders, he needed a good laugh.
A turnover there would've been hard to come back from, both in terms of Foles' mindset and on the scoreboard. Instead, the Immaculate Reception-like play had a reverse effect.
Foles finally loosened up, and loose Nick Foles is the best kind of Nick Foles. Look no further than 2013, the infamous 27-2 season that occurred when nobody expected him to be the Eagles’ starter, let alone decent. Compare that to 2014 and ’15, when the teams he was a part of were bad, but the expectations were rising with his profile.
By the end of his second career playoff game, he looked like he was having fun and ready to let the ball fly. That’s exactly the version of Foles the Eagles are going to need in the NFC Championship against the Vikings on Sunday.
Fans can only hope that version of Foles is here to stay, at least for one more week.