On Sunday afternoon, in the middle of winter, fireworks arced randomly into the sky all over South Philadelphia. That was as sure a sign as any that the city was doing something it hasn’t gotten to do often, and not at all since, well, Twitter was invented and trolls were creatures that lived under bridges.
It was playing host to the NFC championship game, which — for a town that isn’t deemed worthy of hosting a Super Bowl (yet East Rutherford, N.J., was .. hmmm) — is something like a revival meeting, New Year’s Eve bash and Hollywood movie premiere, all rolled into one.
I was there, and here is my minute-by-minute journal as the evening unfolded:
4:11 p.m.: After a circuitous drive north in which my car was nearly running on fumes (turns out the Costco in Dover doesn’t sell gas) I arrive at an undisclosed street in South Philly. Normally there’s plenty of street parking left this early, but not today. Time to dig into a Wawa Classic — my first food of the day — and watch the AFC championship game. The Jaguars are up 14-3 in the second quarter. Lots of time left.
4:27: The Patriots get a touchdown, but may have lost Rob Gronkowski on a helmet-to-helmet hit. On the previous drive, the Jags committed a fatal error with a delay of game that took away a first down and forced a punt. The Patriots will win this game. Jacksonville let them off the hook.
4:49: The NFL Mobile app stops working. It’s time to head to the stadium. Let’s do this!
I hear fireworks from my car. As the stadium comes into view, “E-A-G-L-E-S” chants begin at the SEPTA station at the corner of Broad and Pattison.
5:20: I’m inside the stadium. The only wait was for the Eagles app to load so my ticket could be scanned. There was no line. Tailgating is in full force.
5:28: Speaking of lines, the bathrooms already have lines out the door. A Vikings fan is spotted inside. “Don’t you know fans of the opposing team can’t use the bathroom here?” yells a younger man in Eagles gear. He’s clearly not joking, totally.
5:30: I wade through the crowded concourse to the north entrance and HeadHouse Plaza. I’m shocked when I get there. It’s a sea of green. There’s a massive video board showing the Patriots-Jags game. Tom Brady throws a TD pass to pull New England within 20-17 with 8:44 left.
5:38: Blake Bortles throws two straight incompletions to kill a Jacksonville drive. Second down was a deep shot that had no chance and was nearly intercepted. Brady has six-and-a-half minutes, and I bet he’ll use nearly all of it.
5:44: The Jags force a punt after a borderline pass interference call. Fans cheer a hard hit on Brady on a second-down incompletion. “E-A-G-L-E-S” chants break out on the plaza.
5:53: Danny Amendola catches a TD in the back of the end zone. 24-20. A fan walking by wails, “You gotta be kidding me.” The Jags have 2:48 to get a touchdown. They had this game by the throat late in the first half. Turns out that their pass defense wasn’t so great when the pressure was at its highest.
5:56: Just as Bortles drops back to pass, the big board switches over to the in-stadium feed showing Nick Foles and Nate Sudfeld warming up on the field. The crowd boos that decision. Time to head to Section 211. The Jags blew their chance in the second quarter. Moments later, the game goes final.
On Tuesday, I had predicted a 24-22 Patriots win in which they would get a real scare. Maybe I should do this kind of thing for cash …
The concourse is packed with people watching the end of the AFC game, which holds up traffic for everyone else. Finally, I squeeze through. At the top of the stairs, two fans in German shepherd masks bark at me vociferously before high-fiving me.
6:12: I arrive at my seat. Come to think of it, there don’t seem to be thousands of dog masks here. Maybe Amazon sold out because there were only 100 of them in stock.
6:34: Nick Foles is the last player introduced. The intros are the loudest I’ve ever heard. The crowd breaks into “USA! USA!” as an American flag as big as the field is unfurled.
6:46: It comes to my attention there’s a Vikings fan sitting behind me. He’s wearing a blue and purple Under Armour sweatshirt so as not to draw attention and invective. He’s cheering each play … quietly.
6:48: Kyle Rudolph catches a TD pass. Looks like Najee Goode was in coverage. I got a bad feeling before the game when word came out that Dannell Ellerbe couldn’t go tonight.
For a brief moment, I can hear Merrill Reese on the WIP broadcast coming over the speakers in the concourse. That’s a true sign the building has gone quiet.
6:51: I text my friend Liam: “Birds can’t fall behind by double digits in this game. There’s no Drew Brees here”
6:54: Trey Burton fails to get both feet in on a third-down catch on the sideline, followed immediately by a personal foul on Shelton Gibson for interfering on the punt return. Two big mistakes and the first quarter isn’t even half over.
7:04: Patrick Robinson intercepts a third-down pass and cuts across the field, sneaking inside the pylon at the far end zone. You hear about stadiums rocking — this one just did. Utter bedlam. 7-7 after Jake Elliott puts it down the middle.
7:14: My friend Brandon texts me: “It’s time for Dougie P to unleash hell”
7:20: Blount gets two yards for a first down at the Minnesota 26. The Birds are putting together a nice drive as the first quarter ends. Luckily that means they’ll be driving toward the south end zone — my direction.
7:25: Blount runs over Andrew Sendejo at the 5-yard line and barrels into the end zone. 14-7 Birds. There’s a mass exodus to the concourse for beer and bathrooms.
7:30: Eagles bring a corner blitz on third-and-short. Keenum hurriedly lobs a pass off his back foot to Jerick McKinnon, but it’s off by several yards. Eagles take over at their 30 after a punt.
7:55: Alshon Jeffery catches a 53-yard bomb down the right side for a TD on third-and-10. The pocket caved in on Foles, but he stood his ground. It’s 21-7, and the crowd is starting to feel it.
8:02: The defense is swarming, as they say. Keenum has nowhere to go on third-and-6. Could’ve easily been sacked. Another exodus to the concourse. This is the one downside to having an aisle seat.
Brandon: “Keenum is shook. As Mobb Deep would say, “scared to death, he’s scared to look, he’s shook”
8:03: Ertz gets wide open along the sideline for a 36-yard gain. Ajayi takes a short pass for 13 more yards. Jake Elliott is good from 38 yards.
That looks like a dagger drive for the Birds. That drive began at their 20 with 29 seconds on the clock. Twenty-nine seconds! And they got three points. Now they’re up three scores and their offense will be on the field to start the second half.
8:13: Brandon texts me as the Roots finish their set: “This could be the year”
Me: “You gotta beat the best to be the best”
Liam: “I know I said 31-10 but asking the birds to only score 7 more seems unfair.” Liam also predicted 100-0. I had it 20-19 — Eagles, of course.
8:26: Torrey Smith catches a deep ball and crashes through the pylon. 31-7. THIS IS HAPPENING. Someone in the front row of the section double-high-fives me so hard it stings.
8:35: The stadium is doing the Skol clap. Maybe a tad early. The Vikings are at the Eagles’ 17 with just over 22 minutes of play left.
8:40: The officials say Adam Thielen made a circus TD catch on fourth-and-goal. The video board says otherwise. I’ve never been happier that instant replay exists. Eagles take over. The Skol chants are back, briefly.
Foles > Skols
8:49: Foles threads a third-and-5 pass to Nelson Agholor for 42 yards. Now I’m ready to do the Skol.
8:53: Ajayi carries it to the 2-yard line below my section. That’s the end of the third quarter. Damn the luck.
The perfect (G-rated) headline for this game comes to mind: SKOL DOUGGERY. I text Brandon another one that is not G-rated.
8:57: Alshon skies up for the TD on third-and-goal from the 5. The pass was a perfectly placed dart. Foles is having a hell of a night.
The Skol chant is stadiumwide. A new security guard named Derrick is in the section keeping watch. This ain’t the Vet.
9:02: A prolonged “We want Brady!” breaks out in the south end. It’s so loud I can’t hear Ed Hochuli announce a penalty on the Vikings for unnecessary roughness.
Brandon: “I would like to know if there was ever a take at the beginning of a season that was ever proven as embarrassingly wrong as Mike Lombardi’s take about Pederson”
9:05: Brandon says Fox punching bags Joe Buck and Troy Aikman claimed the crowd is chanting “Foles.” All I hear is “Skol.” (Update: Later on, fans in my section chanted “Foles! Foles! Foles!” while making the Skol sign.)
9:10: Cox is all over Keenum on fourth-and-2, and a meager throw falls to the ground. The clock slips under 12 minutes. That should do it.
Why is Foles still in the game? Sudfeld should get the spotlight. No need to risk anything here.
The Eagles are punting. It’s been a while.
In Philly sports moments of my life, this day ranks in the top five. The others: Game 6 of the 2008 World Series (Part II), 2004 NFC championship game, Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals. Mitch Williams striking out Bill Pecota to end the 1993 NLCS is close but doesn’t make the cut.
Not many people have left. We are savoring this one.
9:24: Ronald Darby jumps a route and nearly picks off Keenum inside the Eagles’ 10. The ball bounces to Corey Graham, who corrals it. Sometimes it’s just your day. Eagles take over at the 7 with 5:52 of clock to burn.
9:30: Ajayi reverses field for 16 yards. Come on, Doug — give the ball to Corey Clement.
9:31: Liam demands an apology for doubting his score prediction. I couldn’t be happier to be wrong.
9:35: Two-minute warning. This crowd ain’t going anywhere.
9:40: Game over. The Eagles sideline surges onto the field. The Linc is as loud as it’s been all night.
9:43: Brandon: “The Eagles will beat the Patriots”
9:54: The confetti has all fallen. Terry Bradshaw has spoken. But no Carson Wentz, disappointingly. The man should have gotten the mic.
9:55: Brandon: “It bet it’s insane out there”
Me: “It’s all the emotions. I don’t want to leave”
Brandon: Just sleep there man”
Time to head out. On this night, the work of 69,596 is done.
As I float down the stairway on the southwest corner of the stadium, I pass a grinning security guard.
“Seven points? That’s all they came for?” he says.
On to Minneapolis …
Unbridled optimism heading into an Eagles season opener.
That’s the stuff of youth, and I’m not as young as I used to be.
Still, as I walked with my friends Brandon and Liam north on Morgan Boulevard toward FedEx Field, prime enemy territory, I was teeming with an irrational idealism about how the next four months would go for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Why was I feeling so positive?
Was it the talent the Eagles had stockpiled in the offseason (Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount, Ronald Darby)?
Come on now. I haven’t forgotten 2011 and the so-called Dream Team.
Was it the smooth play of the first-team unit in the preseason?
Nope. I won’t buy into that after what happened in 2015, when Sam Bradford and the Eagles shredded the Packers at Lambeau Field in an exhibition clinic that they would never replicate under Bradford and coach Chip Kelly.
Besides, the Eagles’ starters didn’t play much at all in this year’s preseason.
So what was it that had me thinking the Eagles would roll into FedEx Field, an uninspired slab of concrete that has aged like Robin Williams’ character in “Jack,” and leave with a two-touchdown victory?
Considering that the Eagles hadn’t beaten Washington since 2014 and hadn’t won at FedEx since Kelly’s NFL debut the prior fall, any good vibes about this game seemed out of touch with reality.
But football is not really about reality and common sense. It’s more than a little deranged. Why else would 80,000 people be so eager to spend hours driving and/or taking the train to a suburban void in Maryland, for an afternoon sitting among the increasingly intoxicated, while the bathroom queues grow like Soviet bread lines?
That’s football. None of us really know why we go through all that trouble to experience what amounts to 11 minutes of gladiatorial action. We just want to, and we’ll move heaven and earth, and rearrange our lives, to do it.
On Sunday afternoon, after I’d somehow gotten a sunburn on a day when the UV index was 1, 310-pound Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox scooped up a fumble (or was it a pass?) and frolicked into the end zone. A river of burgundy and gold flowed out of the stadium, and “E-A-G-L-E-S” chants rang out amid the midnight green and kelly green.
My irrational optimism had been instantly validated. Two-touchdown victory? Check.
The Eagles will head to Kansas City next. Doug Pederson faces his former coach and mentor, Andy Reid. Arrowhead Stadium is always one of the most intimidating venues in the NFL, even when the Chiefs are bad. This year it appears they are not bad and perhaps quite good. Meanwhile, the Eagles have no kicker at the moment, and Darby is out after his ankle bent sharply in a way it’s not supposed to.
There’s little reason for optimism. But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?