BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Despite their 15 wins and top-seed status in the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles are enthusiastically embracing their underdog status in Super Bowl LII, feeding off the doubts that are officially expressed via the five-point Las Vegas point spread.
But the Patriots aren’t particularly buying Philly’s mantra, and maybe it’s because the last time these two teams saw each other — a little more than two years ago — the Eagles were even bigger underdogs and still managed to pull one of the most stunning upsets of the 2015 season, a 35-28 comeback win in Foxboro.
It seems eons ago in NFL time, but in Week 13 of 2015, visiting Philadelphia rallied from an early 14-0 deficit to score 35 unanswered points, holding on for a seven-point win over New England that may well have represented the crowning accomplishment of Chip Kelly’s three-year coaching tenure with the Eagles. It was certainly his final big moment in that job, given that it was his second-to-last win with Philadelphia, and he would be abruptly fired just three weeks later.
The Patriots entered that game 10-1 and favored by nine to 10 points. Philadelphia was a lowly 4-7, on a three-game losing streak, and had just surrendered 45 points in consecutive losses for the first time in franchise history, falling to Detroit and Tampa Bay. The shocking outcome made no sense whatsoever, but with a lot of the same players still playing for both teams, somewhere that game will register in the memory banks of the Patriots and Eagles on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“We got dominated that night, and that football team came out and beat us as badly in the kicking game as we’ve been beat since I’ve been here the last decade,’’ Patriots special teams standout Matthew Slater said at Monday’s Super Bowl Opening Night media event in St. Paul. “That’s a game we’ve definitely gone over and covered, and there’s a lot of carry-over personnel-wise. We understand this is a heck of an opponent we’re getting ready to play. We saw it then and I’m sure we’ll see it again on Sunday.’’
As improbable as anyone might think an Eagles upset in the Super Bowl would be, the Patriots and the rest of the football world could not possibly be more surprised than they were that night in early December 2015, when Philadelphia scored 21 points on special teams and defense to overcome a two-touchdown second-quarter New England lead. First came a Najee Goode 24-yard touchdown on a blocked punt return, then a 99-yard Malcolm Jenkins interception return for a score, and finally a Darren Sproles 83-yard punt return touchdown. Two late Patriots touchdowns made it close, but Philadelphia prevailed and reminded everyone anew that point spreads don’t determine results.
“We as players who played in that game understand that wasn’t an easy game to win, just like this week,’’ veteran Eagles tight end Brent Celek said. “Those guys were up 14-0 on us, and we had to do some things on special teams, but we found a way to get it done. And that’s the same message this week. We’ve got to find a way to win. Whether that’s special teams, offense or defense, we’ve got to win.
“So hopefully guys can take from that game and that win we had and have some confidence against the Patriots. But I think our team is confident regardless. Whether you were on that team that night in Foxboro or not, we think we can beat anybody.’’
The Eagles finished just 7-9 that season, with Kelly losing five of his last seven games following back-to-back 10-win years in 2013-14. The win at Gillette Stadium was easily the pinnacle of that lost season in Philadelphia, and being able to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on their own field still resonates with those who were a part of that upset. And perhaps it’ll come in handy on Sunday, if New England again shows enough vulnerability to give the Eagles an opening to do the unexpected.
“That’s the beauty of football,’’ said Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley, who served on Kelly’s staff in the same capacity. “But you’ve got to believe first. You’ve got to believe you can go out there and beat a team like that in that setting. No one gave us a chance going into that game that week in Foxboro. But some things went out way and we were able to take advantage of them. We were down 14-0, and yet we came out victorious. If I’m not mistaken, we scored 35 unanswered points against them on the road. Has that ever happened to the Patriots?’’
Eagles running back LeGarrette Blount was in the Patriots backfield that night in 2015, rushing for a team-high 54 yards on 13 carries. He remembers the Philadelphia comeback in that game, and now understands a bit more about where it came from.
“We’re a resilient team and we grind,’’ said Blount, who joined the Eagles in free agency last offseason and has a chance to become one of the few players to play in and win consecutive Super Bowls with different teams (along with teammate Chris Long). “We just take full advantage of every opportunity.’’
The Patriots have been taking full advantage of the cautionary tale that their 2015 meeting with the Eagles provides, reminding themselves what they are up against in a Philadelphia team that has been on top the whole way in 2017, and yet still fiercely clings to an underdog’s mentality.
“They have a lot of high character guys over there, and high character guys, regardless of what the odds are and what the records are, they’re going to compete,’’ Slater said. “I know a lot of guys over there, and I know the type of men they are and they’re going to come out and fight. Just look at what the season has presented them with, as far as injuries and numerous challenges, and they’ve just responded week after week after week. They’re here for a reason.’’
The Eagles are here, and facing the favored Patriots once again, and there should be no real surprises this time. Point spreads aside, recent history tells us these teams aren’t producing a mismatch.