MINNEAPOLIS — The Philadelphia Eagles haven’t even been Super Bowl champions for an hour, and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is gliding around the locker room in bedazzled black shoes, looking for a cigarette.
He wants a victory smoke. Well-earned.
With two-and-a-half minutes left to play, tight end Zach Ertz scored a bobbling touchdown, the kind that you’re not really sure will survive the league’s confusing replay system. It did, and the Eagles regained the lead, 38-33. But they might have scored too soon, leaving the Patriots with a timeout and the two-minute warning still in their pocket.
Tom Brady and the Patriots have a list of slogans about doing their jobs and planning for every possible scenario at every moment of any game. They’re easy to dislike because they can withstand your favorite team’s best effort for most of 60 minutes and invalidate it on their way to another — yawn — amazing win.
The Eagles blowing a 10-point lead wasn’t quite as meme-able as 28-3, but it would have been just as awful of a crap sandwich as the one the internet has been serving up to Falcons fans for the last year.
Philadelphia did not want a taste of that unsavory treat. Just when the Eagles needed it most, Brandon Graham broke through the Patriots offensive line, sacked Brady and knocked the ball out of his hand. Graham’s teammate Derek Barnett took the ball back.
The game already had the makings of being the most exciting Super Bowl in decades, but with one inside move on the right guard, Graham guaranteed it and sent the Eagles home with their first-ever Lombardi Trophy.
Brady made it look easy. He broke the record for passing yards in a Super Bowl and had collected 465 yards and three touchdowns prior to Graham’s sack. The reigning NFL MVP did it by getting the ball out of his hands with lightning quickness on every play.
New England’s protections made the job that much easier. Over and over again the Patriots used seven-man protections. The running backs chipped defenders as they ran their routes.
“We knew Brady was going to get the ball out quick,” Barnett said. “We just didn’t want to give him easy seven-on-sevens. You can’t get to the quarterback when he’s throwing it quick.”
Nick Foles and the offense had a good game of their own, enough to keep things close. The defense wanted the chance to win it, and Foles’ 11-yard touchdown to Ertz gave the defense one more chance to make a big play.
The Patriots had plenty of time for another comeback, but they had to open things up. On second-and-2 at their own 33-yard line, five receivers went into their notes. Nobody chipped, and there were only five blockers in front of Brady.
“Let’s collapse the pocket and not give [Brady] seven-on-seven windows to throw,” Barnett said. “We can’t give him easy windows to throw in. That was our plan coming out.”
The secondary held up its end of the bargain. Brady held the ball a blip longer than he would’ve liked to because his first read was covered.
“I tried to get a push up the middle and cause some disruption,” Fletcher Cox explained. “I was just bulling my guy, and I told Brandon and Chris [Long], ‘just go rush.’
“Brady tried to step up and delivered the ball and Brandon got the ball out.”
Barnett and Cox omitted one important adjustment to their tactics for harassing Brady, an adjustment in Graham’s toolbox of pass-rushing moves.
“We knew it was going to be about matchups, and I knew the way the center was pointing,” Graham explained. “I had the one-on-one all game. I’ve been bulling him, and I switched it up. I acted like I was going to bull him and snatched him.”
Here’s where I pause and tell you why should be reading Stephen White’s Hoss of the Week series during the season. It’s a correspondence course in pass-rushing moves.
The Eagles had been using a lot of bull rushes. They weren’t working. On the strip sack, Graham got around outside of Shaq Mason, and it took him exactly where he needed to be to make the play.
“Tom Brady’s arm just happened to be there and I swiped,” Graham said. “I was just so thankful to be able to make that play to get us off the field and change the game.”
Graham didn’t realize that he caused the fumble. He reached for Brady’s arm, and the next thing he saw was Barnett picked it up and they were running off the field.
“This is what we wanted. We wanted to have the opportunity to win the game as a defense,” Long said. “The offense bailed us out the whole second half ... but we had to play our part with those two drives.”
“We just kept coming,” Graham reminded everyone gathered around him.
They did, and eventually they got there, just when it mattered most. Who wouldn’t need a cigarette after that finish?