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January 02, 2019

Al Morganti: Hopefully rest of NFL learned not to sleep on underdog Eagles

It is almost impossible to believe that 2019 opens up with such a rush of optimism, and a belief that the Philadelphia Eagles have another chance to bring a winter parade down Broad Street and the Parkway.

A longshot? Perhaps, but the Eagles wore that underdog badge proudly last winter and wound up with their first Super Bowl championship. And, if they do it again this season, it will be an even bigger magic trick — and a bigger reason for confetti and suds along a parade route.

By virtue of their shutout win over Washington, coupled with a Minnesota Vikings meltdown in their own stadium, the Eagles will enter these playoffs as a very weird daily double – defending champions AND the team with the longest odds to win it all.

When the Eagles take on the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon in Chicago, they will be a decided underdog, getting about five points, and the betting odds for them to win it all are at +3500. That's a long way from the New Orleans Saints at +250 — or even the Dallas Cowboys at+2500. 

Then again, the Eagles loom as the most dangerous opponent for any team they face, including the Bears on Sunday night.

The assumption here is that quarterback Nick Foles will get over his bruised and battered ribs and upper body during this week, and be ready to pick up where he left off — he picked apart the teams he faced in the playoffs last season, as well as those he defeated down the home stretch of the 2018 regular season.

Just when most people thought the Eagles season had run out of runway when they were blasted by New Orleans and later upended in Dallas, the Eagles under Foles managed to navigate past a couple of playoff teams in the Texans and Rams, and found their way into the postseason when the chips fell the right way on Sunday afternoon.

Once again, Foles took over for an injured Carson Wentz, and the Eagles offense became a multi-faceted attack. Wentz played exceedingly well for a player recovering from major knee surgery, and it is generally assumed that the timeframe to get back to 100 percent after that sort of surgery is at least a year.

Wentz was back quicker than many expected, but his game was not at its peak, and the third-year quarterback was further hampered by a back injury that ultimately ended his season.

Enter Foles, and the Eagles once again look like a team that can beat any in the tourney. Even with a shaky secondary, the Birds have enough offensive weapons to beat anybody. In addition to Foles, the Eagles also got a late season return of Darren Sproles, giving the offense another big-play threat.

Foles has been on the sort of run that will force opponents to check out the tapes of last season’s Super Bowl, when he won the MVP. Then again, they might only have to look back to this past Sunday when he completed 25 consecutive passes in the victory over Washington.

While all of this offensive power has been getting better, the defense has remarkably figured out how to force turnovers – and that has been a huge difference from the early season when the Eagles simply could not take the ball away.

It might seem corny that the Eagles defense wears ski masks to stress they are stealing the ball, but how corny were the dog masks a year ago? It is just another indication of a team that has remained very tight through all the rough patches early in the season, which is a testament to coach Doug Pederson and his staff.

Pederson and the Eagles had a perfect alibi for this season in the form of a Super Bowl hangover. It was almost as if they were given a ready-made excuse which was afforded them by a fan base that was so delirious about the Super Bowl victory they likely would have looked the other way if this season went south.

And it sure did appear to be headed in that direction early in the season as the Eagles struggled mightily through the half way point and beyond. The road signs were up indicating a path to nowhere, but Pederson managed to avoid the woe-is-us attitude and had his team up and running when Wentz went down, and then fine-tuned it as Foles came back with Sproles as a spark plug.

In addition to being the defending champs with a Super Bowl MVP quarterback, the Eagles also have the “advantage” of already having played through some must-win situations – and they came through with the sort of late-game poise that any team needs to have success in the playoffs.

This time around, the Eagles' biggest opponent might not be the Bears or Rams or Saints. This time around, the biggest foe might be geography, because unlike last season the playoffs do not have to go though Philadelphia. By virtue of their wild-card status, the Eagles are finished at the Linc, and any success they have will have to come in places such as Soldier Field or the Superdome in New Orleans.

But if this magic carpet ride has an even better Chapter Two, wouldn’t it be to win the whole thing as a wild card team?

Forget the odds in Vegas, the Philadelphia Eagles are a team nobody wants to face in the playoffs. And for a very good reason – they have a decent chance to win it all again.