MINNEAPOLIS — All night the Eagles defense had been stampeded by the Patriots offense, or more precisely by the lone GOAT that is their quarterback.
But with just over two minutes to play, with no option but to stop Tom Brady for a first time in Super Bowl LII, an Eagles defense that had all but disappeared conjured the miracle this franchise has waited decades for.
Brandon Graham, who like the rest of his line mates hadn’t touched Brady in the previous 57-plus minutes, stripped the quarterback. When the ball bounced up and into Derek Barnett’s hands, the Eagles had short-circuited what everyone in US Bank Stadium expected to be another game-winning drive by the Pats’ 40-year-old QB.
A Jake Elliott field goal followed and soon, after one final New England scare, the Eagles had finally won a Super Bowl, a 41-33 triumph in a game where defense was replaced by sheer entertainment.
“We came together at just the right time,” said Chris Long, who was a half-step from Brady on the play that produced the fumble.
How much the Eagles defenders were to blame for maybe their worst performance of a championship season is difficult to assess. Brady is like the Minnesota cold. Teams can brace themselves for him, layer on extra protection. But there’s virtually no way to stop the icy sting.
For most of Super Bowl LII, the Eagles, utilizing a four-man rush, couldn’t get a glove on him. With no discernible pass rush, and against a Philadelphia secondary that frequently seemed perplexed, Brady threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns. His Patriots never had to punt.
The Eagles ended the regular season as the NFL’s fourth-best defense in points allowed and yards-per-game. They had held their last four opponents — including Atlanta and Minnesota in the postseason — to 10 points or less.
But on Sunday night, there seemed to be nothing Jim Schwartz’s defense could do to slow New England.
Some of it, of course, was Brady’s well-practiced precision. Some was that, until the pivotal fumble, the Eagles pass-rush never sacked him and rarely touched him. Some of it was the Patriots’ hurry-up offense, which negated one of Philadelphia’s strengths, the defensive-line depth that allows for constant substitution. And some it was a zone scheme that Brady picked apart and simple sloppiness, like all those missed tackles on James White’s 26-yard scoring run, which gave New England a crucial TD late in the half.
If the Eagles defensive coordinator wore a somewhat befuddled expression running off the field at halftime, it was understandable.
His defense somehow had limited New England to just 12 first-half points, even though Brady had thrown for 276 yards and never been pressured. Malcolm Jenkins and Jalen Mills made a couple of plays that turned possible TDs into field goals.
But then there were three pass-plays of 43 yards or more. And on White’s back-breaking run, Mills and Corey Graham both failed to wrap up the runner.
“I’m not going to be on the field,” Schwartz had said last week when asked how he planned to control Brady. “It’s going to be Tom Brady and their offense matching wits with (Eagles safety) Malcolm Jenkins and our defense.”
Schwartz made some minor tweaks in the second half, notably eschewing zone.
But the four-man rush they relied on had no luck. Fletcher Cox, Graham and the rest of the line still couldn’t reach Brady and with no pressure, the secondary was powerless to stop the crossing routes and wheel-routes New England thrives on.
The Patriots QB was even better in the third and fourth quarters, throwing a pair of TD passes to a reawakened Rob Gronkowski and another to Chris Hogan.
Then game the single most important play in Eagles history.
Graham and Chris Long both penetrated. Brady turned but in doing so moved closer to Graham, whose flailing arm knocked the ball loose.
“Our defense stepped up and finished it for us,” said Doug Peterson. “I’m just so happy for them.”