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Eagles' Doug Pederson sets tone as Nick Foles rounds into form

PHILADELPHIA -- The football slipped out of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery's grasp and popped into the air, and when it landed in the arms of a lurking defender, the collective reaction of the Philadelphia Eagles' offense was the sporting equivalent of a nonchalant shrug.

Four days before they would host the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, in the early stages of a pivotal padded practice, the Eagles' demeanor appeared pretty far from super. This, in turn, provoked a much sharper reaction from their second-year head coach, who threw a tantrum that would reverberate throughout the team's training facility the rest of the week and carry over to Sunday night's showdown at nearby Lincoln Financial Field.

As Doug Pederson explained while we stood outside his private dressing area more than an hour after the Eagles' 38-7 dismantling of the Vikings in front of 69,596 ecstatic fans, "These games are too important. You can't let stuff slide. And when I saw it in practice, and I saw the entire offense walk back to the huddle instead of chasing the ball, I lost my mind. I was like, 'Oh, no ... no, no, no. We ain't doing this.' And from then on, it was an out-of-body experience."

If Pederson's hair-raising rant proved to be a tone-setter, as many of his players would later suggest, perhaps he should consider summoning a sequel sometime in the next two weeks. For if the Eagles can replicate the focus, intensity and precision they displayed against the Vikings come Super Bowl LII -- when Philly takes on the defending champion New England Patriots on Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, of all places -- the familiar sight of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady once again hoisting the Lombardi Trophy might not be a fait accompli.

After all, Pederson and his unlikely quarterback of the present, Nick Foles, have been laying waste to conventional wisdom since Dec. 10, when second-year star Carson Wentzwent down with a season-ending knee injury in a 43-35 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. And on Sunday, with most of a football-watching nation wondering if Foles could prove to be a capable caretaker for an otherwise formidable Eagles team, the sixth-year signal caller unloaded on the Vikings like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."

By the time Foles (26 of 33, 352 yards) had punctuated a flawless day with his third touchdown pass -- a high, well-placed 5-yard throw to Jeffery (five catches, 85 yards, two TDs) in the back of the end zone less than a minute into the fourth quarter -- he and his teammates, with 38 unanswered points, had made believers out of virtually everyone who witnessed the spectacle.

"We started a little slow, and then we turned it on, and it was awesome," 11th-year tight end Brent Celek said as he exulted on the confetti-strewn turf after the game. "Listen, I've played a long time, and I think life, and football, are about adversity -- how you handle it, and how you respond to it. And this team, all season, has responded to adversity better than any team I've ever seen."

Before losing Wentz, who was having an MVP-caliber season, the Eagles endured season-ending injuries to star left tackle Jason Peters, emerging middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, dynamic scatback Darren Sproles and special-teams ace Chris Maragos. Through it all, they continued to thrive, locking up the NFC's top seed with a 13-3 record, then surviving a tight divisional-round playoff game against the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons and pulling out a 15-10 victory.

As in that game, the Eagles were underdogs against the second-seeded Vikings, who were basking in the afterglow of the Minnesota Miracle. This was largely a reflection of a general lack of faith in Foles -- and if Pederson took the marginalization of his second-stringer a bit personally, he had his reasons.

During his 12-year playing career, Pederson was mostly a backup for four different teams, and he has an acute understanding of the challenges posed by that role. While Foles had performed productively in closing out that December victory over the Rams, and in the following week's triumph over the New York Giants, he had struggled in his final two starts of the season, leading many skeptics to conclude that Philly's postseason dreams were destined to be derailed.

Pederson, however, felt strongly going into Sunday's game that Foles was ready to roll. He was well aware of the quarterback's up-and-down NFL journey, having been Philly's quarterbacks coach when Foles was picked in the third round of the 2012 draft. The next season, Foles made the Pro Bowl after leading the Eagles to the NFC East title, but he leveled off in 2014 and was traded after that season to the Rams. Benched midway through the 2015 campaign, Foles was released the following spring and spent a year as a Kansas City Chiefs backup before rejoining the Eagles last March. He ended up being sidelined during most of training camp and the preseason with an injury to his throwing elbow, depriving him of valuable preparation opportunities.

"What people are missing is that he had no training camp time," Pederson said following Sunday's game. "Then the season starts and he's the backup and he's relegated to service-team reps. And he's thrust into action at the end of the Ram game to help us win the division ... and then his first full week of playing is the New York Giants the next week ... and then the Raiders and the Cowboys. So he's only had a couple of weeks of preparation.

"And I know Nick. Nick is a guy that just needs time; he just needs reps. And those are the things that we knew as a staff -- I helped draft him back in, what, 2012? So, we never batted an eye. We just knew we were gonna have to play great defense, eliminate some mistakes on special teams, and then offensively we were gonna have to rely on the run game, and let Nick get caught up."

It's not a stretch to say that Pederson, who was hired to succeed Chip Kelly following the 2015 season after three years as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator (under Andy Reid, the last man to coach the Eagles to the Super Bowl, 13 seasons ago), also needed some head-coaching reps to round into form.

After guiding Philly to a 7-9 record in 2016, Pederson was the subject of some skepticism, both from inside and outside the organization. There was talk that his speeches to the team lacked polish and presence, that he wasn't tough enough on his players or assistants, and that he was out of his depth as a head coach.

Some of that might have been overdramatized, but either way, Pederson has demonstrated a marked improvement in his second season, in all areas.

"Doug is just coming into his own," said eighth-year defensive end Brandon Graham. "He's a guy that's calm, cool and collected. He doesn't get mad often, but when he does ... ooooh, man."

That brings us back to last Wednesday: Jeffery, after catching a pass from Foles, had the ball dislodged by a scout-team defender, and practice-squad safety Harold Jones-Quartey snatched it out of the air and took off for the end zone -- with no one in pursuit.

"It was just lazy," Celek recalled. "Doug wasn't having that, and he let us know and set a tone."

Said veteran defensive end Chris Long, who had a huge game Sunday, forcing the Case Keenum interception that cornerback Patrick Robinson returned 50 yards for a game-tying touchdown in the first quarter and killing a Minnesota scoring threat by recovering a fumble with 3:16 left in the first half: "It was awesome. He just knows when to yell and when to chill. He has a knack for when to let us have it ... and we feed off of it."

From Pederson's perspective, the passivity of his offensive unit was so unacceptable, he railed at players and assistant coaches alike.

"I lost it," he said. "I wasn't so mad about the turnover; it was the fact that there was no awareness, no energy, like ... Oh, it was just a turnover. I sort of reset the drill, had the defender take the ball, and then I blew the whistle and had the offensive guys chase it, like they should have. It was too important. And after that, practice was pretty good."

By Thursday, Foles and the Philly offense looked pretty, pretty good. Shortly after practice, star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox told Graham, "Nick's gonna come out and light it up on Sunday."

He would -- but it took a little while to flip the switch. After Keenum punctuated a game-opening drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Eagles managed only a single first down before punting. Robinson's interception return tied the game, and Foles began to find his rhythm, connecting with Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz (eight catches, 93 yards) on several first-quarter throws.

Credit Pederson, who came through with another top-notch game plan, with helping the quarterback get his groove back. Putting forth his typically creative and varied plans of attack in both the running and passing games, Pederson kept the Vikings' vaunted defense off balance. He also employed some of the run-pass option plays that Foles favored during his stellar 2013 season under Kelly, adding a somewhat surprising layer to this joyous night in the City of Brotherly Love.

Late in the first half, Foles got back in touch with his inner Pro Bowler. On third-and-10 from the Philly 47, he dropped back and evaded the advances of Pro Bowl pass rusher Everson Griffen (who pawed at the football) and fellow defensive end Danielle Hunter (who seemed to be on the verge of a sack), somehow hung tough in the pocket and unleashed a sublime pass downfield to Jeffery for a 53-yard touchdown, giving the Eagles a 21-7 lead with 1:09 left in the half.

After forcing a punt, Philly got the ball back at its own 20 with 29 seconds remaining -- and Pederson, as has been his custom all season, chose an incongruously aggressive approach.

"I could've taken a knee," Pederson said later. "I could've run the ball. But you know what? I trust Nick, I trust our offense. And we got three points at the end of the half."

Jake Elliott's 38-yard field goal as time expired -- set up by Foles' 36-yard strike to Ertz up the left sideline -- made it 24-7. The Eagles received the second-half kickoff and drove to the Vikings' 41 before draining the remaining suspense out of the game in spectacular fashion.

On first-and-10, Pederson sent in a play call he'd designed specifically for the Vikings, provoking a silent celebration by Foles, who said in his postgame press conference he had never before run a flea-flicker on any level of football. After handing off the ball to rookie running back Corey Clement, then getting it back on a lateral, Foles set his feet and fired a deep ball up the left sideline to wideout Torrey Smith, who had a couple of steps on cornerback Trae Waynes. However, All-Pro safety Harrison Smith was closing fast toward the sideline, necessitating a pinpoint throw. No problem: The ball dropped perfectly over Torrey Smith's shoulder and into his hands for a 41-yard score.

At that point, Eagles fans had stopped sweating the Vikings and were now looking ahead to the team's impending trip to Minnesota -- and contemplating a scenario that once seemed unfathomable. Could the Eagles, who fell three points short of the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, prevail over Belichick and Brady to capture their first Lombardi Trophy not with Wentz, but with his unflappable understudy?

"He's amazing," Ertz said of Foles. "Obviously, people have been doubting us since the moment Carson got hurt. But the thing about this locker room is, all 53 guys kept believing. And today, Nick was ballin', just killing it. I'm not surprised by this result. I said from the get-go this game didn't have to be close."

A few minutes later, Ertz stood in the middle of the Eagles' locker room and had a long, heartfelt conversation with Wentz, who is walking with the aid of a wooden cane as he recovers from reconstructive knee surgery. If Wentz, as I wrote last summer, is a Type-A-plus personality, Foles is his ultra-chill counterpart.

"He's as cool as the other side of the pillow," Celek said. "The big stage, it doesn't faze him, dude."

Neither does the cynical chatter that has accompanied Foles' ascent to the starting lineup.

"He just blocks all those distractions out," Cox said. "He doesn't listen to what other people say. If he really listened, he'd be mentally messed up. But he just keeps proving people wrong. I've seen this movie before."

Of course, this Philadelphia Story wouldn't be complete without the obligatory angst-provoking plot twist: In this case, the X-rays to Foles' ribs after the game, which he insisted were merely precautionary. He does not appear to be in any danger of missing the Super Bowl; in the meantime, his teammates are reveling in his revival.

Said veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins: "Everybody who's ever written anything negative about him -- just take the paper, crumple it up and eat it."

Added Long: "He's not a panic guy, man. He fits the personality of our head coach, and he fits the personality of our team. And now he's had four weeks of reps, so ... preseason's over. It's actually amazing that somebody's able to sit for so long, all year, and come out and play like this. He can just be Nick. He doesn't have to carry us. He just has to play good football. He's been doing that in this league for a long time.

"Tonight, though, he carried us."

He also carried the torch for a head coach who, after a rough rookie season, is finding his voice as the leader of a franchise -- even when that voice is loud and enraged and spewing expletives, as it was last Wednesday. At the same time, Pederson has exuded a quiet faith in Foles' ability to execute the Eagles' offense, and to round into form in the nick of time.

Late Sunday night, as he prepared to retreat to the sanctuary of his dressing room, where several family members were gathered, Pederson proudly broke down Foles' final touchdown pass -- the third-and-goal strike to Jeffery in the back of the end zone on the second play of the fourth quarter.

"He's now getting into that rhythm," Pederson said. "That throw he made to Alshon -- in the back of the end zone, high, above the facemask -- he couldn't have put that any other place. And that comes from repetition with his guys; that's Nick repping that route every single day in practice."

These days, an Eagles' practice might feature a quarterback and his receivers gelling and a chagrined coach yelling -- all part of a dream the Eagles are selling to a growing legion of believers, with only Brady and Belichick left to spoil it.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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