Six weeks before the Philadelphia Eagles cruised by the Vikings to reach their third ever Super Bowl, the team’s championship hopes had appeared to wither. On December 11, the coach Doug Pederson had confirmed the league MVP candidate quarterback Carson Wentz would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL, meaning the National Football Conference’s best team would be forced to confront the playoffs without its offensive centerpiece. “The Eagles just lost Carson Wentz, and their shot at the Super Bowl,” blared a Washington Post headline. “Eagles’ Super Bowl dreams are over,” echoed the New York Daily News.
As football fans everywhere furiously Googled to find out the Eagles’ back-up, it was hard not to at first chortle at the answer. With Wentz out, Philadelphia would turn to Nick Foles, the quarterback who in 2013 carried the Eagles to the playoffs, then collapsed the next year, lost his job, and bounced to two other teams before quietly returning to Philly this season, mainly to hold a clipboard on the sideline. The Eagles were entrusting a playoff-bound team to someone who had thrown almost as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23) over the past four years.
Now, Foles has the Eagles headed to the Super Bowl and stands one win from hoisting the trophy that Randall Cunningham, Ron Jaworski, Donovan McNabb, and every other previous quarterback in franchise history failed to capture. That Foles—or “Saint Nick,” as Eagles fans are calling him—will match up with Tom Brady and the Patriots in America’s favorite sporting event feels like a typo. The NFC is stocked with great quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, and Matthew Stafford, to name a few). Yet many were wondering, this is the guy representing the conference in the Super Bowl? The guy who was benched by the lowly Rams in 2015 and could barely escape the sideline with the Chiefs in 2016? The guy who weighed retirement only 18 months ago? The guy who played so poorly in a Christmas-night win over the Raiders that home fans began to boo?
Yep, that’s the guy—only instead of bouncing passes at receivers’ feet, he’s now hitting them in stride with perfectly placed deep balls. Foles has played a huge role in Eagles victories over both Atlanta and Minnesota, completing an incredible 78 percent of his passes for 598 yards over the two contests. In firing three touchdown passes last weekend against a typically stout Vikings defense, Foles looked nothing like the oft-maligned back-up who had been discarded by three franchises (including Philadelphia) since 2014. He looked instead like a Super Bowl–caliber quarterback.
Make no mistake, Foles is not another Brad Johnson or Trent Dilfer, both middling quarterbacks who were dragged to the Super Bowl by dominant defenses. Though the Eagles’ D has been a huge part of the team’s success, especially in the postseason, their offense has been just as crucial, averaging 395 yards per game in the two playoff victories. Foles is not along for the ride; he’s driving the car.
If Philadelphia is to stand a chance against New England on February 4, Foles must provide more than just a steady hand on the wheel. The Patriots scored at least 20 points in all but one game this season and at least 30 on eight occasions. Against that kind of offense, the Eagles won’t be able to squeak through in a low-scoring defense-oriented game. They’ll have to match New England blow by blow, which means Foles will need to play every bit as well as he has so far this postseason.
Given Foles’s up-and-down history, that’s far from a sure thing. Watching him decimate the Minnesota secondary, Eagles fans were surely reminded of the former third-round pick’s breakout 2013 season, when he supplanted Michael Vick for the team’s starting role, then fired 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions on his way to the Pro Bowl. But they’d be wise to also recall what came next: a lackluster 2014 campaign, which precipitated Foles’s trade to St. Louis. The story of the 29-year-old’s NFL career to date has been highs and lows jumbled among each other.
This season has been no different. In his first start after Wentz’s injury, Foles tossed four touchdown passes in a win over the Giants, and the Eagles appeared to be in capable hands. Then came the disaster against Oakland and an even worse outing the following week against Dallas. Philadelphia stumbled into the playoffs having scored only one offensive touchdown over its past two games.
With Wentz under center, the Eagles would have been NFC favorites. With Foles in his place, they were written off almost entirely. When 11 Sports Illustrated writers submitted their playoff predictions earlier this month, only one had the Eagles winning a game, and none had them reaching the Super Bowl. Despite possessing the best record in the NFC, Philadelphia was an underdog against the Falcons and, after prevailing in that matchup, an underdog again the next week against the Vikings.
Foles is certainly not the only Eagles player who has stepped up in leading the team past Atlanta and Minnesota. The receivers Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and Torrey Smith, as well as the tight end Zach Ertz, have provided the quarterback with capable targets. The running backs Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount have proven an able speed-power tandem. And the team’s defense, led by the defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, has held opponents to only 17 total points. But more than anything, the Eagles’ run to the Super Bowl owes to the unlikely resurgence of Foles, their supposed weak link.
Naturally, the Eagles are underdogs again heading into their matchup with the dynastic Patriots, and quarterback play is the biggest reason why. On one sideline stands Brady, a five-time champion, four-time Super Bowl MVP, and arguably the greatest ever at his position. Opposite him lurks Foles, a journeyman backup thrust into the starting role by an ill-timed injury. Safe money says that Brady outplays Foles and the Patriots seize another Super Bowl title.
But Foles is not the type of quarterback you can easily count out. Sure, he might repeat the performance against the Raiders that earned him boos. But he also might reproduce the outing against the Vikings that turned him into a Philadelphia hero. That wide range of potential outcomes should give the Eagles reason for fear. But it should also give them reason for hope.