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MINNEAPOLIS — All week long, the Philadelphia Eagles had this air about them.
They weren’t foolishly cocky. They definitely respected the opponent that awaited them. They acknowledged the greatness of the New England Patriots.
But they knew that they, too, had something special deep within them, and they had no reason to doubt their capabilities as they prepared for one of the league’s greatest dynasties.
And so when they found themselves down to the New England Patriots with mere minutes left in the fourth quarter, and facing fourth down around midfield, the Eagles did what they always do. They didn’t flinch. They converted — just as they had at a league-leading rate all season long, and they marched downfield and scored.
When their defense faced the tall task of stopping the legendary Tom Brady with two minutes left, the Eagles again delivered with a strip-sack and fumble recovery deep in Patriots territory.
And charged once more with stopping Brady with 65 seconds left while holding a 41-33 lead, the defense again overwhelmed the future Hall of Fame quarterback to secure the win.
When the clock ticked to zero and Philadelphia secured a huge Super Bowl upset, the players exuded elation but not an ounce of surprise as they sprinted onto the field and embraced with confetti raining down.
Underdogs throughout the postseason after weathering the loss of a franchise quarterback, star left tackle, starting running back and middle linebacker, the Eagles refused to wilt.
They remained resilient. They remained confident. They remained aggressive.
Call it a trickledown from the top.
Doug Pederson didn’t care that he was going up against Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest coach and master of in-game adjustments of all time. He didn’t let the pressure overwhelm him or force him to go out of character as many Eagles opponents have.
Instead, Pederson remained just as aggressive as ever.
“That’s who he is,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “Coach Pederson has been aggressive since the moment we started the season, and he’s always going to be aggressive. That’s why I love playing for him.”
Players say Pederson still carries himself with the swagger of a pro quarterback, a confidence that is reflected in his play calling.
He has developed a reputation for aggressive and unconventional approaches, including his gambles on fourth downs and his use of college concepts into the pro game. Some would describe Pederson as a gambler or risk taker. But he disagrees. His mind-set is to stay ahead of the defense by executing the unexpected, and his team prepares for those situations rather than relying on luck.
For example: the late first-half touchdown, where Nick Foles went into motion, running back Corey Clement took the direct snap and flipped it to tight end Trey Burton, who passed to Foles for the score? The Eagles coaches got that from watching college tape, practiced it with the players for a month and then finally used it Sunday night.
“We just needed the perfect time and look, and we found it,” Pederson explained.
Even after he masterfully orchestrated a script that rendered the Vikings’ top-ranked defense toothless in the NFC Championship Game, Pederson’s game-planning skills remained underrated.
But no one will ever overlook him in this department again, not after he continually remained just one step ahead of Belichick to lead for three-plus quarters and then overcame a deficit to secure the Lombardi Trophy.
Pederson went on the attack from the start. He immediately helped his quarterback and supporting cast settle into a rhythm with a diverse attack that featured quick-hitter passes, a healthy dose of the run, misdirection plays and carefully planned deep shots downfield.
The Eagles during the first half boasted an impressive 5-for-8 showing on third downs while compiling 107 rushing yards and 215 passing yards.
Pederson showed his aggressive tendencies as he went for two on the Eagles’ second touchdown of the game, disregarding the conventional school of thought that the first quarter is too early to go for two. The attempt failed, but Pederson didn’t let that diminish his aggression, as the Burton to Foles touchdown showed.
But Pederson’s true test came in the second half. It’s not unheard of for Patriots foes to experience early success. Even the Jacksonville Jaguars and quarterback Blake Bortles did so in the AFC Championship Game. But Belichick’s squad routinely comes out after halftime and flips the script.
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Conversely, Patriots opponents often tend to get conservative when holding second-half leads, and that proves costly.
But that wasn’t the case for Pederson.
“He told us all week, ‘I’m going to be aggressive, you know, and do everything that I can to make sure we keep our foot on the pedal,’ ” wide receiver Nelson Agholor said.
The Patriots did make key adjustments at halftime. At one point in the second half, Tom Brady was 12-for-15 for 181 yards and three touchdowns, and those heroics gave the Patriots a 33-32 lead (the their first of the game) with half a quarter left, which signaled the usual breaking point for New England opponents.
But because Pederson is almost always aggressive, the Eagles players didn’t feel any desperation.
Facing fourth-and-1 down 33-32 with 5:39 left to play, Pederson went for it, of course. Others might have punted and asked their defense for a stop and the ball. But that’s not Pederson’s style. During the regular season, the Eagles went for it on fourth down 26 times (second most in the NFL), and they converted on 17 times — tops in the league.
So when the Patriots stopped Torrey Smith for no gain on third-and-1, Foles and his offensive teammates didn’t even take a step toward the sideline. The quarterback went to the trusty Ertz for 2 yards and the first down, and just like that, the Eagles had their mojo back. Three plays later, Foles threaded the needle to Agholor for an 18-yard gain that put the ball in New England territory.
A short time later, with just more than two minutes left on the clock, rather than try to milk more time, facing third down from the 11, Pederson went for the score — and the lead — rather than a first down. Foles connected with Ertz, who dived into the end zone.
“He kept his foot on the pedal,” defensive end Chris Long, who played for the Patriots last season, said of Pederson’s play calling. “We learned from last year, watching – well, I was a part of it – but people getting conservative and not knowing when to run it, not knowing when to be aggressive. But not Doug. Our offense carried us in the second half. It was a bit of a bumpy road for us. But eventually, we knew we could get a stop when they had to push it downfield.”
Two defensive stands and a field goal later, Pederson and Co. completed their mission, delivering to their championship-starved city the most unlikely of happy endings. But was it unlikely? The Eagles and coach will say of course not.