By Michael Bennett
It won’t surprise anyone that the Eagles are deep underdogs to the evil empire.
Early lines favor the Patriots by about six points. That’s a bigger spread than the previous eight Super Bowls.
It doesn’t matter that at 13-3, the Eagles and Patriots had the same regular-season records. Or that they were both the No. 1 seeds in their conference. Or that Philly just surgically trashed the Minnesota Vikings’ NFL-best defense in a 38-7 win that was the biggest rout in the team’s postseason history.
These disparate identities are inseparable from the franchises and their fan bases. It’s how these teams forged opposite paths to the final game of this season. It’s so ingrained that saying anything otherwise would be a personal affront to both New Englanders and Philadelphians—two packs who aren’t exactly famous for their cheeriness when things don’t go their way.
In Philly, the city that has never won a Super Bowl, it always seems like a slow burn until the next catastrophe. New England is the place where everything works out so routinely that an entire generation has been born during the team’s run of now eight Super Bowl appearances, dating back to 2001.
“They expect to be there every year. They’re built for that,” said Chris Long, the veteran defensive end who signed with the Eagles in March after winning the Super Bowl with the Patriots last season. “This is an ascending team, an ascending franchise.”
The Patriots have good reason to feel confident. They have Tom Brady, a five-time Super Bowl winner and arguably the best quarterback in football history.
The Eagles have Nick Foles, the oft-ridiculed backup thrust into the starting role after young star Carson Wentz went down with a knee injury in Week 14.
It was the loss of Wentz, and the arrival of Foles last month, that sent familiar shockwaves of dismay hurtling down Broad Street, an annual tradition in which everything goes terribly wrong for the Eagles. It was for that reason that the Eagles were an underdog in both of its playoff games thus far, which became victories over the Vikings and Atlanta Falcons.
That nobody outside of Philly believes in the Eagles has emerged as a running joke in the locker room. When a reporter asked Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie on Sunday night about his team’s underdog status, Lurie didn’t even wait for the end of the question before interjecting.
“Are we underdogs again? Great. Great. Great.” Lurie said. “Somehow, I’m not surprised.”
The Eagles reached this point by repeatedly defying expectations. That particularly applies to Foles, who looked every bit as capable as Wentz on Sunday. He torched the Vikings for 352 passing yards and three touchdowns, a brilliant performance that, at least for now, turned Foles into a folk hero.
“I always try to root for underdogs,” Lurie said.
Outside of New England, the rest of the country shares that sentiment. But there’s that one team that sees it all differently. The Patriots relish their role as football’s No. 1 villain. They make a mockery of norms and persist as perennial contenders in a way no modern football team is supposed to. They win more than anyone else, in spite of everything that’s supposed to stop them and do it with a rotating cast of drones except for the two people who have lorded over the league during this entire reign: Brady and Bill Belichick.
Sunday’s AFC Championship was the ultimate primer on how, when things go wrong in New England, they rarely actually go wrong. The Patriots had to deal with the worry that Brady, who lacerated his hand during practice last week, wouldn’t play.
Brady’s hand, the only thing studied more by football fans and pundits since chemistry textbooks during the Deflategate scandal, was fine. (And even the Deflategate fiasco turned out to be a potential blessing in disguise: Brady was suspended for the first four games of last season, only to look like the freshest player on the field during their all-time Super Bowl comeback.)
It’s totally preposterous to ever call this team an underdog. People have tried. Oddsmakers have made them underdogs 11 times over the last five seasons. They won seven of those games.
The Eagles have won the NFC East 10 times. They will soon play in their third Super Bowl. They have never won one. Only the Vikings have won more playoff games without winning it all in the Super Bowl era.
The last time the Eagles made it this far was in the 2004 season. That year, they went 13-3, breezed through two home playoff games and went into the Super Bowl as a touchdown underdog looking to end decades of painstaking misery against an imperious power. They lost by a field goal. To the Patriots.