MINNEAPOLIS – Rarely, if ever, has a No. 1 seed ever been so universally considered an underdog, and they seem ambivalent about the label.
In his second season as head coach, Doug Pederson had his Philadelphia Eagles dominating the National Football Conference for three quarters of the regular season with a 10-2 record. Then, in mid-December, their starting quarterback and league MVP candidate Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending knee injury.
The 13-3 Eagles still managed to capture the NFC's top playoff spot, but with backup signal caller Nick Foles taking over for Wentz, odds makers put Philly as underdogs at home in both the Divisional Playoff against Atlanta and the NFC Championship versus Minnesota. Pederson's Eagles won both, of course, and find themselves in the Twin Cities after all, where some Philly players claim they knew as far back as springtime they'd eventually be.
Now, just days away from a date with the reigning champion Patriots in Super Bowl LII, Philadelphia is in a familiar, if not entirely comfortable position. New England has been installed as 4.5-point favorites.
"Our guys don't read into too much of what is written or said," Pederson tried to tell reporters Tuesday in the Super Bowl host city of Minneapolis. "Our guys just go about their business every day. We know what we're facing – a lot of respect for [the Patriots], obviously, what they've done and accomplished. It's about what we do, how our players handle this week and eliminate distractions."
Talking with Pederson's players today, however, it's clear they are indeed still listening to the critics. They have been, actually, since some of them walked victoriously off their Lincoln Financial field wearing dog masks after beating the Falcons two weeks ago. The Eagles both embrace and reject being perceived as underdogs in this Super Bowl.
"We have a ton of respect for Tom Brady and their team and what they've been able to accomplish, not only this year, but throughout the years," starting defensive tackle Tim Jernigan began, "but we feel like it's our time. We just have to go out there and win the game."
The city of Philadelphia and Eagles fans have cultivated a reputation of grittiness and roughness-around-the-edges, which appears to fit the underdog classification and mirror the attitude of their football team. Starting defensive end Vinny Curry found it an apt comparison.
"We're going to greet you, but we're going to beat you," he laughed, "and we're going to ask if you're all right a little later.
"It's pretty funny, but it's definitely motivation. If people want to call us underdogs, so be it. You can call us anything you want to call us, but you still have to line up against us Sunday and play. Since we've been called underdogs, we've been winning. So, keep calling us that."
Perhaps no Eagle embodies the underdog persona more than the veteran Foles, in his second go-round with Philadelphia. He started his NFL career there from 2012-14, making one-year stops in St. Louis and Kansas City the past two seasons before returning this year.
If the Eagles are to prove their doubters wrong yet again, they understand they'll have to take down Brady and New England, the NFL's Goliaths, with Foles playing the David role.
"It's just different roads," he observed. "I'm a lot younger in my career. Tom's done a lot of great things in his career. A lot of young players like myself watched him growing up, but you take your own path. I'm grateful to be in the Super Bowl with these guys.
"Obviously, Tom Brady is one of the greatest to play the game. I'm excited to compete against the Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday. They've had a great team for a long time. I'm excited to go in there with my team and face them."
Curry and Jernigan are eager to face Brady, too, because they believe the pressure they and fellow front-seven pass rushers like Fletcher Cox might be able to bring to TB12 could prove consequential.
"That's going to be very important," declared Jernigan, who was traded to Philly from Baltimore last spring. "We have a lot of confidence in ourselves. We think we're going to be able to get to Tom and dominate the game, but Tom is a great player. Sometimes it doesn't matter how much you hit him, he's going to get right back up and keep playing. We know we have a tough game in front of us, but we're very confident in ourselves and our preparation."
"Right now, at this time of the season, I don't think anybody can call us underdogs," starting cornerback Jalen Mills bristled. "Two teams left, about to play in the Super Bowl… No way we're underdogs right now."
When informed that Brady essentially agreed with that assessment, Jernigan chuckled.
"He's a smart guy."
For Super Bowl Week, the Eagles are utilizing the football facilities of the University of Minnesota here in Minneapolis. Not having appeared in a Super Bowl for 13 years, Philadelphia is unaccustomed to the accompanying circus-like atmosphere, so, Pederson is trying to maintain as normal a schedule as possible for his team.
"The setup over there is really nice. The University of Minnesota's doing a great job for us, letting us use their facility," added Pederson.
"The week itself – our guys get pulled in a lot of different directions, but as we really begin the work week and focus in on the football game, we can't lose sight of that, either. There's a game at the end of the week. My job is to make sure the guys stay mentally plugged in this week. That's why the routine will remain the same. We'll just adjust. We're flexible. Whatever we're asked to do, we'll do, but at the same time, we'll stay focused on task."
Foles admitted that he has, from time to time, thought ahead to what it will be like to take the field Sunday night against Brady and the Patriots.
"But then I zone back into right now," he maintained, "because I don't want to get ahead of myself. There's a lot to do to prepare for the game."
Once the Eagles resume practicing tomorrow, Foles' backup, Nate Sudfeld, will act as Brady on Philly's scout team. The second-year passer has a distant connection to the Patriots in the form of his older brother Zach, a tight end who briefly played for New England in 2013.
"We had a jump-start on it last week. Nate's been doing a good job," Curry remarked. "Some of the things Tom does, he can make something out of nothing. His ability to find that one person that's [missed an assignment] or that's not really in the right spot [defensively], he'll find you and pick on you. So, this week, the emphasis is to pay attention to detail."