In the closing minutes of Sunday night’s Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, the NBC commentator Al Michaels took a moment to praise the evening’s all-around play, before the ending elevated one participant at the expense of the other. “You know what’s so great about this game,” Michaels said, “is that the game has been terrific from start to finish.” Michaels’s partner, Cris Collinsworth, added his own full-bore adjective: “The game has been relentless.”
The descriptions fit. The 52nd Super Bowl, which ended with the Eagles knocking off the Patriots 41–33 to capture their first Lombardi trophy, felt like a classic from the opening moments. It had a narratively rich setup—the five-time champion Pats and the ageless Tom Brady going against an Eagles team led by the backup Nick Foles, who two summers ago had contemplated moving on from pro football—combined with nearly nonstop action. It was the highest-scoring title game since 1995, and the previous Super Bowl record for total yardage fell in the third quarter; the teams ended up combining for 1,151 yards of total offense.
What won the game for the Eagles ultimately seemed not so much a difference in quality as a difference in nerve. Foles, who as recently as the final two weeks of the regular season had looked overmatched against teams that didn’t even reach the playoffs, performed Sunday night with the confidence of an MVP, threading short throws between lines of defenders and dropping two long touchdown passes perfectly into his receivers’ hands (he threw for three TDs overall). The running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi muscled through New England tacklers time and again, each averaging more than six yards per carry. The Eagles’ defensive line, thought to be an advantage entering the game, broke through at the crucial moment, when Brandon Graham sacked Brady and forced a fumble on the Patriots’ penultimate possession, snuffing New England’s best hope of a comeback.
If all the excitement was too much to keep track of, the game even provided its own shorthand. Early in the second quarter, the Patriots attempted a trick play in which the receiver Danny Amendola took the ball in the backfield and threw to Brady, who had snuck toward the sideline; the ball bounced off Brady’s fingertips. Just before halftime, the Eagles ran a near-identical play in a far riskier situation, on fourth down near the goal line. Their version—dubbed the “Philly Special”—worked. The tight end Trey Burton connected with Foles for a touchdown, and the implication felt as meaningful as the points: The Eagles were fearless, willing to call any play at any time. The team that had taken to wearing underdog masks over the course of the postseason went out not to minimize mistakes, but to seize opportunity.
Asked what the title meant to the city of Philadelphia, the Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said, “If there’s a word, (it’s) called everything. That’s what it means to Eagles fans everywhere.” It’s easy to imagine that the league commissioner, Roger Goodell, who had just handed Lurie the trophy, felt similarly thankful for the evening’s spectacle. With the mounting public concern over football’s violence, each NFL season seems more fraught than the last, and in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, an affecting video compilation of the year’s concussions made the rounds. This championship, nail-bitingly close and expertly contested, offered a kind of respite to fans inclined to look for one—a chance to return to the days when strategy and individual heroics, not health risks, dominated the conversation.
Even a game as grand as this one, though, had trouble at the margins. In the second quarter, the New England receiver Brandin Cooks turned directly into a blindside hit that left him motionless on the turf for some moments; he left the game with a head injury, and the play drew no penalty flags. And on two of Philadelphia’s touchdowns, including the late game-winner to the tight end Zach Ertz, the byzantine catch rules that have vexed the NFL all season came into play, threatening to turn pivotal sequences into casualties of frame-by-frame porings-over. “I give up,” Collinsworth griped after the first score was upheld, upset less by the play itself than by the seeming randomness of the officials’ decisions. “I don’t know the rules.”
“If they would have overturned that,” Ertz said of his deciding catch, “I don’t know what would have happened to the city of Philadelphia.” He was referring to his fanbase’s infamous penchant for public shows of emotion; in advance of the Super Bowl, the city greased its light poles to try to stop climbers, and a Ritz-Carlton awning was a quick victim of postgame celebrations. Ertz might just as easily have been alluding to the frustrations of much of the football-watching, though, had New England won on a seeming technicality. The weeks leading up to the Super Bowl were marked by a palpable Patriots Fatigue; a Brady victory built on instant replay and rulebook parsing would have siphoned no small amount of the game’s joy.
As it turned out, a thriller of a game ended up in favor of the natural heroes. “I can’t tell you how happy I am,” said the Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson to his team following the trophy ceremony. The sentiment was surely repeated in bars and living rooms across the country; it was likely silently shared even in the league offices. This Super Bowl provided what has become increasingly scarce, and what will only become scarcer: a good night for football.