PHILADELPHIA — They took turns throughout the week, speaking from the heart and from years of NFL experience, to a room of men bonded by their commitment to one shared goal.
In advance of their NFC divisional round matchup with the defending conference champion Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles Coach Doug Pederson had asked veterans with postseason experience to address the team. Leaders such as Malcolm Jenkins, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount and even former Pro Bowl safety and current football operations executive Brian Dawkins obliged.
Whenever the mood felt right, they addressed their brothers, distilling decades’ worth of football knowledge into succinct but meaningful soundbites designed to galvanize a team determined to win for one another.
“When guys just feel like they have something to say, they’re just going to say it and everybody’s going to listen because it’s a respect thing here,” said Blount, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots.
In the morning. After practice.
In the locker room. The cafeteria. And the team meeting room.
The time of day didn’t matter. And neither did the venue.
It was the message that was most important.
“We’re a family and we’re a brotherhood,” said Blount, who scored the Eagles’ lone touchdown in Saturday’s 15-10 win over the Falcons. “So whatever happens, we have each other’s back.”
Jenkins, a member of the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV championship team during the 2009 season, said he reminded his teammates not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment.
“The platform is bigger, the stage is bigger, the lights are brighter, the crowd is louder,” recalled the nine-year veteran. “But the field is the same size, the ball is the same, the rules are the same. So, at the end of the day, it’s just football. We just need to prepare.
“Obviously, we’re going to have energy and we’re going to have excitement. But it’s the teams that can focus the most on every single play and make the least amount of mistakes that win these games.”
When they were labeled underdogs, even as the No. 1 seed gave them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Eagles quickly took notice. Then they used their detractors as added motivation. And in the aftermath of their win over the Falcons — a game in which quarterback Nick Foles did just enough to outplay his counterpart Matt Ryan and the Eagles defense kept Atlanta’s top playmaker, Julio Jones, out of end zone — Pederson’s players reveled in proving the naysayers wrong.
“I think it would fuel anybody if you feel disrespected,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “You’ve just got to go take your respect because it’s not given.”
If anything, Foles was expected to be a liability. For all of his NFL experience and talent, the inconsistency he has shown over his six-year career remains his biggest drawback. But in the lead-up to Saturday’s showdown with the Falcons, Eagles coaches and players reaffirmed their trust in the man filling in for up injured Carson Wentz.
While Foles wasn’t masterful against Atlanta, his final stat line (23 for 30 for 246 yards and a quarterback rating of 100.1) proved he had done his job while earning his first career playoff victory. His 76.7 completion percentage was the highest in Eagles’ single-game playoff history, and the win improved Philadelphia’s all-time home record in the postseason to 14-7.
In a game decided by five points, Foles was more than good enough, his teammates said.
“How did Nick play? Did he throw some picks?” Blount rhetorically asked, knowing Foles was without a blemish in that department. “We can’t ask nothing more from him. He did everything we needed him to do and he’s going to continue to do everything we need him to do. …I feel like he deserves the respect and people need to start giving it to him.”
“You guys doubted him. We never doubted him,” added receiver Alshon Jeffery, who caught four passes from Foles, including a 21-yarder late in the third quarter. “We believe in anybody lining up back there at quarterback.”
The win buoyed the city of Philadelphia, which will host an NFC championship game for the first time since the 2004 season. But Jenkins was quick to dismiss the notion that their latest win had given them a much-needed confidence boost.
“We’ve already had this belief,” Jenkins said, smiling. “I know a lot of people think there’s doubt here, but there’s no doubt in this locker room. We’re not doing anything to surprise ourselves.”