Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Victory slips through Birds’ grasp

Posted by Eric Fisher On January 13

After doing very little since the opening 11 minutes of the game, the magic appeared to be back in the air for the Eagles.

Nick Foles, the leading man in unbelievable riches-to-rags-to-even-greater-riches story, was leading the Eagles to another improbable winning drive. With only two first downs during the second half, the Eagles quickly picked up a pair of first downs and advanced the ball to the Saints 27-yard line.

Squeezing in another play before the 2-minute warning, Foles found Alshon Jeffery open on the left side. But the ball went right through the big man’s hands – perhaps the best hands on the team – and right into the waiting arms of cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

“That last play, that’s on me,” said Jeffery, who added that the play will stay with him the entire offseason.

The Eagles’ flickering hopes were then extinguished when the Saints converted on yet another third down, this time third-and-9, to prevent the Birds from getting the ball back.

Saints 20, Eagles 14. The season is over. The fairy tale is over. The dream of repeating as Super Bowl champions is over.

“It’s tough. It’s tough,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said. “There’s no more football for 2018.”

The 2018 season continues for the Saints, who will host the Rams in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday (3 p.m.) after rallying from an early 14-point deficit against the Eagles.

End of the line?

But there won’t be any more football this season for the Eagles. And there might not be any more football in an Eagles uniform for several players who have been integral parts of the Eagles’ recent success. That list includes defensive end Brandon Graham, left tackle Jason Peters, running back Darren Sproles and, of course, Foles.

“We hate this feeling right now,” Jeffery said.

Foles wouldn’t say Sunday was his final game in Eagles green, but he spoke about how much he’ll missing playing with the same group of teammates.

“That’s the hardest part about this,” Foles said. “It stops.”

Foles also thanked Eagles fans for their support and talked about how much he’s enjoyed playing in Philadelphia, saying “The city means so much to me and my family, and it always will.”

It’s likely that Foles will be starting for another team next season. But his teammates won’t forget what he’s done for them during his time with the Birds.

“I love and respect that guy so much,” center Jason Kelce said. “… He’s one of the guys you’ll always remember.”

Fast start

It appeared that Foles, Peters, Graham & Company were going to get another chance to wear Eagles green again next Sunday when they raced out to a 14-0 lead Sunday. Eager to put a 48-7 embarrassment at the Superdome behind them, the Eagles built a 14-0 lead before the Saints even had a first down.

The Saints seemed intent on reminding the Eagles of the Nov. 18 humiliation, which dropped them to 4-6 and left their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, by throwing deep on the game’s first play from scrimmage. But Cre’von LeBlanc intercepted Drew Brees’ deep throw down the middle for Ted Ginn Jr., doubling Brees’ total for interceptions thrown at home this season.

The Eagles quickly moved the ball past midfield, and then Foles placed a beautiful throw in Jordan Matthews’ arms for a 37-yard touchdown with 10:41 remaining in the first quarter. After the defense forced a three-and-out on the Saints’ second possession, Foles engineered a 75-yard drive, with Foles reaching over the goal line from the 1 for a 14-0 lead with 4:37 remaining in the first quarter. Foles was already 8 of 9 for 113 yards, with his eight completions spread around seven receivers.

“The first two drivers were great,” Foles said.

But the momentum changed early in the second quarter. The Eagles appeared to have forced another three-and-out, but the Saints pulled off a successful fake punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 30, with Taysom Hill picking up four yards. To make matters worse, Fletcher Cox was injured on that play.

One play later, Brees connected with Michael Thomas (12 receptions for 171 yards, TD) for a 42-yard gain down to the Eagles 24. Another moment of truth came on fourth-and-goal at the 2, but the Saints decided to go for the touchdown instead of kicking a field goal, and Brees found Keith Kirkwood in the left side of the end zone against Josh Hawkins.

Hawkins was in the game because Rasul Douglas was on the sidelines with an ankle injury. In addition to the injury that limited Cox’s playing time, right guard Brandon Brooks left the game in the first quarter with a torn Achilles tendon.

“That’s kind of been our season, fighting through injuries,” Pederson said.

The pattern the rest of the game involved the Saints controlling the ball, with the Eagles defense giving up big plays on third down, and the Eagles offense unable to generate anything positive.

“We just couldn’t get off the field defensively on third down,” Pederson said.

That was never more evident than on the Saints’ first possession of the second half. After the Eagles went three-and-out, the Saints put together an 18-play, 92-yard drive to take the lead, 17-14. The third-down conversions included a 20-yard pass to Thomas on third-and-16 from the Eagles 32. Fittingly, Thomas caught a 2-yard touchdown for the go-ahead score.

Magic resurfaces?

Another field goal gave the Saints a 20-14 with 10:28 remaining, but the Eagles received renewed life when Wil Lutz missed a 52-yard attempt with 2:58 remaining.

All of a sudden, memories of last Sunday’s double-doink by Cody Parkey resurfaced. Against the Bears, the winning touchdown drive came before the missed field goal, but who says the script has to be exactly the same very week?

“It just felt like that magic was going to continue,” Pederson said.

The Eagles hadn’t moved the ball with any success for more than three quarters, but, with Foles at the helm, the improbable becomes the routine. After an incompletion on first down, Foles recognized the blitz and found Zach Ertz for a 16-yard gain to advance the ball into Saints territory. A roughing-the-passer penalty advanced the ball to the 27.

After Sproles was limited to no gain on first down, the Eagles decided to run a play before the two-minute warning. Foles dashed off a quick pass to Jeffery, who was open … and that’s where the magic ended.

Jeffery was left lying on the field for nearly a full minute. When he got to the sideline, his face was full of shock and sadness.

“I told him to keep his head up,” Pederson said. “Don’t let one play define you.”

This year’s Eagles will be defined not by one play, but by their resilience. It would have been easy to pack it in after the 48-7 loss to the Saints, and the Saints certainly didn’t expect to see the Eagles again this season. But the Eagles fought back to win five of their next six games to reach the playoffs, and then beat the Bears on the road to earn another trip to the Superdome.

The Eagles won’t be going back to the Super Bowl, but it’s not because they didn’t give it their best effort.

“We went out there and gave it everything we had,” Foles said.

And that’s a fitting way to remember this Eagles team.

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