It’s been one of the most surreal Eagles seasons ever. They’ve won games they should have lost and lost games they should have won and, along the way, they also lost a lot of players to injuries. And not just a lot of players – a lot of their best players.
But they still managed to sneak into the NFL playoffs, and you want to hold that back-door entry against them, and the fact that they barely won the worst division in the league, that’s your prerogative.
But that is also what makes this team – which has had to rely on deep reserves and even practice squad players for much of the season – so appealing to so many of its fans. We all remember the dog masks the players wore during the Super Bowl run two years ago – the Eagles were the underdogs in all three playoff games that season even though they had the best record in the NFC, and the players reveled in that us-against-the-world approach.
And so did Eagles fans. Whether they want to admit it, the fans of all the Philadelphia sports teams have inferiority complexes, mainly because, over the years, Philadelphia sports teams have lost a lot more than they’ve won.
But even more than that, over the years, Philly fans have learned that just when they start to feel good about their teams, something bad happens. Oh, there has been an occasional championship, an average of one per decade, but for the most part, it’s been pain and disappointment.
Remember those great Andy Reid teams, when it seemed as if the Eagles made it to the NFL Championship Game every year and lost every year? And when they finally got over the hump, they laid an egg in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.
Remember those great Charlie Manuel teams, when the Phillies rolled up the regular season victories only to stumble in the playoffs? Of course, they won one World Series, but with the roster those teams had – at one point or other during the Manuel years, the Phillies had three Cy Young Award winners and an All-Star at every position, including several who are considered the best to ever play their position for the Phillies – they should have won more than just one.
All Philadelphia sports fans have learned that when their expectations are the highest, the disappointment is much, much worse.
That’s why the Eagles’ Super Bowl title two years ago was so special. Even though they had the best record in the conference and the deepest roster, they had also lost their MVP-candidate quarterback, Carson Wentz, to a knee injury and nobody knew what to expect from his backup. That’s why they were the underdogs in all of their playoff games. And we all know how that turned out — Nick Foles led the Eagles to the Super Bowl championship and became forever after a folk hero in the Delaware Valley.
Well, nobody expects this Eagles team to match that Eagles team. It would take a miracle of biblical proportions for the Eagles to win the Super Bowl again this season, and most of the miracles would be of the healing kind – if all of their injured players suddenly were healthy and ready to play, they might have a chance.
But they’re not, and there’s no way the Eagles can march all the way through the tough NFC playoffs, where they’d eventually have to play in New Orleans or Green Bay or San Francisco, and then beat the best of the AFC. This Eagles team has heart and character and those are great things, but when the other team also has them, as well as superior talent and depth, well, you don’t have to be a math major to figure out what happens.
So, we won’t look that far down the road and, citing one of the most familiar clichés in sports and especially football, we’ll take the playoffs one game at a time. And we can see the Eagles beating Seattle on Sunday, even though the Seahawks have a better record and soundly beat the Eagles earlier this season, which is why the Eagles are once again the betting underdogs.
Maybe that’s why you don’t sense the angst in Eagles fans that you usually do before a playoff game. It’s like everybody understands that this team just isn’t good enough – or at least healthy enough – to compete for a championship, so nobody has their expectations set too high.
That doesn’t mean the fans won’t boo, of course. But their hearts won’t really be in it.