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January 21, 2018

Final observations: Eagles 38, Vikings 7

Eagles NFL

The Eagles are heading back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2005, following a 38-7 beatdown of the Minnesota Vikings. Boy, does it feel good to type that sentence.

Their work is far from over. Doug Pederson and Co. now have the unenviable task of trying to prepare for a date with the New England Patriots, the most successful franchise in football since the turn of the century. The road ahead is treacherous, but for now, Eagles fans can celebrate a tremendous accomplishment for a beloved team.

The Good

• Mike Zimmer is a good football coach, and that's a big reason why the Minnesota Vikings were in the NFC Championship game to begin with. Doug Pederson absolutely dismantled him in every way imaginable, leaving no doubt as to where Pederson ranks among the coaching elite after this performance.

Up 17 and with every reason to go conservative, the Eagles stayed true to the ethos that led them to this moment. The Eagles ran a flea flicker, of all plays, and an excellent throw from Nick Foles put the Eagles in total control with most of the second half still to play.

It's easy for Pederson to say he has total confidence in Foles during some regular season press conferences, or that not much changes with Carson Wentz on the shelf. It's another thing altogether for the Eagles to go full steam ahead as if they didn't lose an MVP candidate in the first place. But what shined through in his gameplan on Sunday was the total confidence he showed in his guys, and they came out and rewarded their coach for the belief.

Maybe that says something about the X's and O's savvy of Pederson, but I think it says just as much about how guys respond when you ask them to step up to a challenge. Pederson would have been totally justified if he came into the playoffs and kept it simple, hoping to rely on his defense to lead the team to glory. Instead, he empowered the men around him, refusing to play scared in the face of adversity.

That is what leadership looks like. This team shows every hallmark of a tight-knit, well-coached team. And that starts with Pederson.

We also shouldn't undersell how significant this is from a long-term perspective. If you're an outsider looking at this situation, you see a second-year coach who helped a second-year QB look an MVP candidate. You see a coach who lost that player and was able to adapt on the fly with a backup and go to the Super Bowl anyway, playing the same style he did all season. Most of all, you see a coach who frequently and forcefully stuck up for his guys when everyone counted them out, leading them to an ass-kicking of an elite NFC team.

The Eagles are already a well-respected organization around the league, and this will help build on that rep even more. Something special is being built here, and Pederson is at the center of it all.

• Regular readers around here probably know I rank among the foremost Foles skeptics. But only a blind hater could take issue with the way he has played when the games really counted, and I sincerely think this game against the Vikings was the best he has ever played.

Everyone knows about the seven touchdown performance against Oakland under Chip Kelly, but when you combine his effort against Minnesota with the stakes of the game, I don't think it's even close. He made every throw imaginable: out routes, slants, deep posts, flea flickers, you name it and he hit it. Every part of the playbook was open for Foles on Sunday, and he balled out.

What was most impressive about the performance was watching Foles make plays he has rarely made even when he's feeling it. We've seen Foles in rhythm and tearing teams apart before, but rarely have we seen him have success on the move. Against Minnesota, he even had that working, pulling off some Wentz-esque throws after buying time in the pocket.

The Super Bowl is a completely different level, and Foles will be up against the greatest quarterback of all-time, not Case Keenum. But all he'll have to do is outplay Tom Brady one time, for one game. Maybe he comes out in two weeks and lays an egg, or maybe he comes out and has a repeat performance. Regardless of what happens in the next game, the guy deserves a ton of respect for seizing the moment and putting his squad on the precipice of franchise history.

• The offense was the shining star on Sunday, but the defense should not go home without their share of the praise. They bent, but never broke, and came up with timely turnovers whenever it seemed things were starting to get hairy.

Once again, it was a collective effort rather than individual dominance that powered Philadelphia's defense. There was Chris Long, busting into the backfield and forcing Case Keenum into rushing his throws. There was the rookie, Derek Barnett, stripping Keenum and ending a dangerous Minnesota drive. They were aided by the leaders on the back end, Malcolm Jenkins among them, who helped organize things after blown coverage and a sloppy start gave the Vikings a 7-0 lead.

True to their fighting spirit, the defense didn't let up just because the game was out of hands. With the Vikings on the verge of scoring some sympathy points late in the game, the Eagles secondary came up with another big play, closing the door for good.

Players up and down the defensive line registered QB hits, and that has really been the story all season. When one man falters, another rises to the occasion, and on Sunday we saw all of them hitting their stride simultaneously. It's a scary sight, at least if you're not pulling for the Eagles. 

The Bad

• I spent most of Sunday afternoon debating whether the Eagles should hope for the Jags or the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Ultimately, the Eagles probably got the worse of the two options, simply because of the coach and quarterback combo they now have to go up against in the Super Bowl.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick represent a completely different challenge than anything the Eagles have faced thus far. They lost a couple flukey Super Bowls to the Giants, but they have the track record and big-game experience the Eagles do not. As they showed this week against Jacksonville and last Super Bowl against Atlanta, they can dig themselves out of improbable holes seemingly on command.

The Eagles are capable of beating them. They have earned that level of respect that we can no longer talk about them as some massive underdog story. But for the franchise to earn its first Super Bowl win, they have to go through the greatest 1-2 punch in the history of the sport. That's a tall task no matter how strong your sense of belief is.

The Ugly

• For once, we're going to use the ugly section to point out something that's ugly in a good way. With the Eagles running up the score in the fourth quarter, Philadelphia decided it was time to have a whole lot of fun with the visiting fans.

Minnesota's trademark "SKOL" chant — which they jacked from the Icelandic soccer team, by the way — was shown off in various Philadelphia settings over the weekend. They must have believed it would prove some point about how they didn't fear Eagles fans.

Boy, they must have regretted that one, because Eagles fans unleashed a "FOLES! FOLES! FOLES" chant late in the game in a mockery of Vikings fans.

There is nothing wrong with talking trash when you can back it up. Finally, Eagles fans have a team who is good enough and brash enough to match their passion, which allows the creative insults and jeers to fly. That's how it's done.