PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson brought his team on the field before Sunday night's NFC Championship Game while carrying the jersey of his injured All-Pro teammate Jason Peters. The emotional moment was at once a reminder of the players missing from this stout Philadelphia squad and a signal by an underestimated team which was hiding in plain sight all along. The linemen led the way.
The Eagles are headed to the Super Bowl after a delirious 38-7 washout of the Vikings with a most unconventional starting quarterback and the most conventional winning formula since the dawn of football. They dominated up front on both sides of the ball, just like they have all season. While the world cracked jokes about stand-in quarterback Nick Foles, too little attention was paid to the strong, athletic offensive line in front of him.
"We took it upon ourselves," Johnson said, holding a Coors Light, five hours after his introductory sprint onto the field that sent Lincoln Financial Field into a frenzy. "Whenever it was time to be physical, I wanted to be damn physical. I think it was what tired them out. You could see they were getting tired. You could feel it."
Minnesota's front four, so disruptive all year, was flummoxed by Philadelphia's pass protection. When the Eagles wanted to run the ball in the red zone, they did so with ease. When head coach Doug Pederson called a screen pass to kickstart a drive late in the first half, surprising even his players, the linemen gleefully mowed down any defenders in their path. Foles often stood in the pocket as if the Vikings pass rush wasn't there, comfy in the knowledge that the bad ass Eagles offensive line had his back.
The trait that has so often made Foles an object of ridicule -- "he's a statue in the pocket!" -- felt like an asset on one slow-developing second-quarter play before he shuffled slightly to his left and uncorked a statuesque 53-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery to give the Eagles a 21-7 lead. This was the moment that all of Philadelphia understood this really is happening. Dog mask salesmen should prepare for continued brisk business.
While Philadelphia's cohesive offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, the Eagles defensive line destroyed it. This is a group so deep that perhaps its sixth best player, defensive end Chris Long, was Sunday night's MVP if not for Foles' 352-yard, three-touchdown effort. It was Long's pressure on Vikings quarterback Case Keenum that forced a game-changing pick-six by cornerback Patrick Robinson.
"We try to set the tone," Long said. "And I thought we really set the tone."
Long finished with five hurries and two quarterback hits according to Pro Football Focus despite playing only 31 snaps. That was indicative of an Eagles defensive line that goes eight deep with quality and causes so much havoc that doesn't show up in the box score.
Philadelphia finished with 34 pressures of Keenum (25 hurries, 7 QB hits and a sack), a typical performance by a defensive line that created the most pressures of any group in football.
"You go through each position on our defense and the person that backs up that position can ball, can start in the league anywhere!" defensive end Vinny Curry said of his position group.
Whether Carson Wentz or Foles is behind center, this is a team most comfortable playing with a lead.
"It's very typical of the way they play," Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said after the game. "Once it got into a mostly throwing game, that's their wheelhouse. They did a great job pressuring with four (linemen)."
Curry noted that Keenum "wasn't the first quarterback" the Eagles faced this season who played frenetic because of Philadelphia's pass rush. And he might not be the last.
The Eagles will be underdogs for the third straight game in Super Bowl LII against the Patriots because, well, they are the Patriots. But all the Eagles have done since Foles entered the lineup while trailing in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams back in Week 14 is win all five games that Foles and the starters have finished.
Philadelphia owns perhaps the best offensive line and the best defensive line in football, something that has been true since September. That's a recipe to beat any team, including these Patriots. The depth and strength up front explains how the Eagles survived injuries to Peters, Wentz, running back Darren Sproles and starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. As the Eagles players celebrated only the third NFC Championship in franchise history, it was notable how many of them were already looking ahead.
"We're going to win," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Nobody goes to Minnesota at this time of year for fun."
Storylines ahead of Super Bowl LII
"I tell him all the time I know who you are, and he knows who he is," Long said. "And who he is is plenty."
It will be one of the NFL's great random moments if Foles is somehow the man to finally help deliver this starving city a Super Bowl title.
2) For coaching tactics geeks, it doesn't get much better than a matchup of Doug Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz against the five-time champion Patriots staff. Schwartz helped to dial up pressure at just the right moments Sunday against the Vikings. Pederson always has a few trick plays up his sleeve and, like Belichick, is an aggressive game manager.
While Jaguars coach Doug Marrone sat on the ball late in the first half in the AFC Championship Game, Pederson notably asked Foles to push the ball up the field for an extra three points before halftime. The Eagles successfully took the same approach last week in a key sequence against Atlanta. As Foles' non-stop deep shots Sunday proved, Pederson has a great feel for when to attack. Center Jason Kelce said it's uncanny how the Eagles coaching staff always has their players in just the right position to succeed.
3) The Patriots are trying to win a third Super Bowl in the last four years, just before both coordinators leave for head coaching jobs. This is the exact same scenario New England successfully faced in 2004 before then-coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel left. The Patriots dynasty is now long enough to include two different dynasties within it.
Tom Brady chasing history is not a new Super Bowl storyline, but it's too easy to take him for granted after he just completed another double-digit, fourth-quarter comeback, this time against the best secondary in the league. Winning another Super Bowl at age 40 is without precedent, just like everything Belichick accomplishes from this point forward. Even Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi have to be looking down with admiration.
Offseason questions for vanquished teams
1) Will Blake Bortles be the Jaguars' starting QB in 2018? Bortles should have earned some job security with the way he played the last two weeks. His crisp, 293-yard, one-touchdown effort against the Patriots was more evidence that he can execute an NFL offense when protected. But life as an NFL quarterback is rarely fair, and his return to the Jaguars next year is far from assured. The team owes him $19 million in 2018 on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, a figure it would happily pay if a better option doesn't come along via free agency or trade. (The salary is guaranteed for injury only.) The Jaguars have long been considered a possible suitor for Kirk Cousins if he becomes available, and Chiefs QB Alex Smith is a potential trade target.
This could be an awkward situation for the Jaguars to handle publicly, and they will surely attempt to avoid telegraphing any quarterback interest through the media out of deference to Bortles, whom they drafted third overall in 2014. Finding an upgrade will be a lot easier in theory than in practice anyhow. Jaguars fans should be comforted that bringing Bortles back and drafting a quarterback is a far more palatable option than anyone would have expected it would be in August.
2) Which receiver will the Jaguars prioritize this offseason? The Jaguars' two best wide receivers -- Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee -- are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. It will be difficult to keep both, with Robinson being a strong candidate for the franchise tag despite coming off a torn ACL that ended his 2017 season in Week 1. On the plus side, the most talented defense in the league should return almost entirely intact. The Jaguars have an incredible mix of youth and veteran talent locked in long-term, with slot cornerback Aaron Colvin the best Jaguars defensive player scheduled to hit the market. This team is built for the long run.
"It's extremely frustrating to get whooped like that. They whooped us," Thielen said.
The defensive foundation of the team will almost all be back and injured running back Dalvin Cook will return to the fold, but the quarterback situation is a mystery with Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater all set to hit free agency. It will be difficult for the Vikings to keep more than one of them and Keenum's performance against the Eagles won't help his chances of landing a top-line starting quarterback deal. The fact that Bridgewater was inactive Sunday behind Bradford again also calls into question how Teddy's recovery truly went this season.
"Usually I have a 24-hour rule, so I'm going to take tonight and bottle it up and make sure I never have that feeling again," Keenum said.
4) Who will run the Vikings offense? Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is expected to leave to coach the Giants, although he wouldn't confirm that Sunday night. Like the Falcons losing coordinator Kyle Shanahan last season, the Vikings have to deal with a bitter end to the season and starting over with a new offensive staff.
The non-Super Bowl stories that matter this week
1) A Belichick tree grows in the AFC South: The Titans' hiring of Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel as head coach and the Colts' expected hiring of Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, sets up a strange dynamic in the AFC South. Houston coach Bill O'Brien will regularly match wits against a coach he worked under in New England (McDaniels) and another (Vrabel) who just worked for him. Vrabel also once played under McDaniels in New England, who got his coaching start as a defensive assistant with the Patriots.
The Jaguars will be the outlier in the division, because of their un-Belichickian profile and because they remain the only team in the division possibly searching for a franchise quarterback. After an improbable number of years as one of the worst divisions in football, the AFC South is shaping up to be one of the league's most fascinating.
2) Expect drama in Le'Veon Bell contract negotiations: Three days before Pittsburgh's playoff loss, the Steelers running back sent a contractual flare into the sky, threatening retirement if the team used the franchise tag on him for a second consecutive time. One day before Pittsburgh fell to the Jags, Bell missed all but five minutes of the team's walkthrough practice, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. On game day, when Tomlin requires players and coaches to show up at the stadium two hours before kickoff, Bell reported "much later than that," Bouchette added.
It could wind up being Bell's last game with the organization. These are the actions of a player who is signaling his unhappiness with the team. This information getting out publicly could be a signal that the team is preparing to move on rather than franchise-tag him again at the price of $14.57 million. A veteran writer like Bouchette does not suggest Bell might not be back with the Steelers in 2018 without having reason to do so.
3) Todd Bowles has to get his next hire right: For all the credit Bowles received for leading a flawed Jets team to a second straight 5-11 season, he is at fault for his offensive coordinator hires. Firing John Morton only one season after Chan Gailey "retired" and other offensive assistants were fired is an admission of failure. It's also a risky move, as Morton did a nice job maximizing a talent-poor group led by quarterback Josh McCown. Starting over from scratch again at quarterback and coordinator will be difficult, and Bowles' lack of job security could scare away potential hires. The Jetsreportedly tried to hireEagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo last year, and he is now a coaching free agent, but he could look at other opportunities, such as potentially working under Steve Wilks in Arizona, as being more secure.
4) New-school quarterbacks get old-school coaches: Pete Carroll's hire of Brian Schottenheimer as Seahawks offensive coordinator mirrors Carolina's decision to pair Cam Newton with Norv Turner. Two of the most unique quarterback talents to enter the league this decade will be placed in two of the most traditional, old-school offenses possible. (Newton with Turner looks like a better fit.) For Carroll, this looks like a missed opportunity to reset his offense with fresh ideas.