NFC Championship: Underdog status suits Eagles
Philadelphia — The dog masks aren’t going anywhere.
The Philadelphia Eagles (14-3) are home underdogs again. Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings (14-3) opened the week as 3½-point favorites in the NFC championship game on Sunday.
That’s just fine with the Eagles, who embraced their underdog role against sixth-seed Atlanta. Philadelphia was the first No. 1 seed in league history not favored to win its first playoff game.
After beating the Falcons 15-10, Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson and veteran defensive end Chris Long mocked doubters by wearing German shepherd dog masks as they walked off the field.
The dog masks have become a popular item in Philly since the players wore them Saturday night. The team announced fans can wear them on Sunday as long as they take them off during security check entering the stadium.
“To have a lot of people not having a lot of confidence in us and yet to find ways to win just makes it that much more special for this group,” coach Doug Pederson said Monday.
Expectations for the Eagles have dropped since Carson Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14. Nick Foles is 3-1 in his place with the only loss coming in Week 17 when the starters only played one quarter.
But the offense clearly isn’t the same without Wentz, who is an MVP candidate after tossing 33 touchdown passes in 13 games.
“Since that point, no one has given us a chance,” Pederson said. “Nobody has given us a chance. And I understand, Carson’s a great player, but every week, our guys are hearing the same thing; that now we are all of a sudden not good enough. We’re 13-3 and have the best record in football, we’ve got home-field advantage throughout.”
Since 2000, the home team has been an underdog four times in the NFC title game. The underdog Giants beat the Vikings in January 2000 and the Cardinals beat the Eagles in January 2009. The Bears lost to the Packers in Chicago in January 2010 and the Falcons lost to the 49ers in Atlanta in January 2012.
“I’m glad they’re not in charge of my finances,” tight end Zach Ertz said of prognosticators. “It feels like all of those guys that pick the games are typically wrong. Same with the guys that usually do the draft stuff, the mock draft, kind of the same thing. All these guys that think they know everything typically don’t.”
The Eagles are using critics for extra motivation as they pursue the franchise’s first Super Bowl title and first NFL championship since 1960.
“Just keep on disrespecting and we’re going to keep proving people wrong,” receiver Alshon Jeffery said. “We just believe in one another, we don’t care what anybody else says. We’re just going to keep believing in one another and just keep fighting.”
Inside the miracle play
An exceptional medley of great awareness, terrific balance and deft reflexes allowed Stefon Diggs to ad lib and seize both the ball and the moment in the Vikings’ demon-exorcising “Minneapolis Miracle.”
Diggs was supposed to go out of bounds if Case Keenum threw his way on the play dubbed “Seven Heaven,” although in countless rehearsals at practice never did the pass go to the deep receiver, according to teammate Jarius Wright.
Ten seconds and no timeouts remained when Keenum dropped back from his 39 on third-and-10 in the hushed U.S. Bank Stadium, another haunting playoff heartbreak looming for Minnesota. New Orleans had taken a 24-23 lead just 15 seconds earlier.
The Saints had three defensive backs guarding the sideline as Kyle Rudolph, Wright and Diggs all ran sideline routes from the right of their formation. Diggs was the deepest, with his break coming at about 25 yards, and just as he swiveled his hips he noticed nothing but green grass and purple end zone behind rookie free safety Marcus Williams, who was closing fast.
Diggs turned back to see the ball heading his way.
“I was thinking, ‘Catch it, get out of bounds and maybe kick a field goal,” Diggs said. “I took a picture before I turned around to catch the ball. There was only one guy there. If he slipped, then I was going to try to stay up and keep it going.”
Rookie free safety Marcus Williams, who had a key interception on a floater to Diggs in the third quarter, arrived a tad early. A pass interference flag would stop the clock with about five seconds left, giving the Vikings a chance at a field goal.
Williams awkwardly whiffed on Diggs, taking out cornerback Ken Crawley as Diggs came down, tucked the ball in his right arm and stuck his left hand in the turf to stay up.
If he stumbles there, maybe he gets caught and time runs out. But he kept his balance, his cool — and stayed in bounds — shooting toward the end zone like a sprinter coming out of the blocks.
His 61-yard touchdown catch was one of the NFL’s all-time last-play stunners and it erased four decades of heartache for a franchise that was victimized by Drew Pearson’s original “Hail Mary” catch; Gary Anderson missing his only field goal of the season in the NFC title game; Brett Favre throwing across his body for a game-destroying pick in another NFC championship contest; and Blair Walsh shanking a short field goal against Seattle.
While the delirium echoed, Williams, the 42nd overall selection in last April’s NFL draft, sat sobbing in front of his cubicle in the Saints’ locker room.