NEW ORLEANS — Even in a silent locker room, Alshon Jeffery’s voice could barely be heard.
The soft-spoken receiver knew he had to say something, but in this moment, surrounded by so many cameras in the aftermath of his biggest blunder to date, Jeffery knew words would be of little comfort. But he stood there anyway, shouldering the blame for a lost game and what now amounts to a lost season.
“I let my teammates down. I let the city of Philadelphia down. That’s on me,” he said in the visitors locker room Sunday evening.
The Eagles had returned to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome intent on avenging their Week 11 loss to these same New Orleans Saints, and extending their playoff run one more week. The defending Super Bowl champions set out to prove that the underdog role suited them best, and they were determined to suck the life out of this raucous stadium and this spirited city.
But the magic that had buoyed the Eagles throughout their postseason run a year ago instantly evaporated the moment Jeffery let a pass from Nick Foles slip through his fingers and into the hands of Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
“I’ll take that. It’s on me,” Jeffery said of his costly mistake, which occurred with two minutes left on the clock and the Eagles marching deep inside Saints territory.
The interception, the second of the game for Lattimore, was enough to stave off a late-game Eagles push and seal a 20-14 victory for New Orleans, which will host the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship game next Sunday.
The defending champions, as we know them, are no more.
Stunned silence permeated the visitors locker room as Eagles players dressed without saying a word or sat motionless in their chairs for several minutes. But while Doug Pederson’s players were confronting the likelihood of major offseason roster moves, the Saints were delivering one last devastating blow far from the field of play.
Down the long corridor, on the opposite end of the stadium, a nightclub atmosphere erupted in the Saints locker room — complete with the soundtrack of the Eagles’ Super Bowl. Rapper Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” blared from the speakers as colored LED illuminated their spacious inner sanctum in yellow, blue, pink and purple hues.
Running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara later donned black ski masks as they spoke to the media, a not-so-subtle dig at the defending champions who had recently adopted masks as their personal signature of sorts.
“There’s a lot of fraudulents out there,” Kamara said, referencing the Eagles, after their Week 16 win over Pittsburgh. “So we gotta let them boys know who the real ski mask shawties is.”
When it was all said and done, the Saints had delivered their message loud and clear: The road to Super Bowl LIII goes through the boisterous streets of New Orleans.
It didn’t matter that the Saints trailed by 14 points in the first quarter. Nor were they fazed by the loss of defensive stud Sheldon Rankins due to injury or their inability to settle into an offensive groove in the initial frame. Their MVP-caliber quarterback Drew Brees (28-for-38, 301 yards, two touchdowns) did not wilt under the bright lights of postseason play. Instead, he orchestrated an 18-play, 92-yard scoring drive that not only ate 11 1/2 minutes off the clock, but was capped by a 2-yard touchdown strike to Michael Thomas to give New Orleans its first lead of the game, 17-14, with 1:40 left in the third quarter.
“That was the turning point in the game,” said Brees, whose first pass of the game was picked off by cornerback Cre’Von Blanc.
The raucous atmosphere in the Saints locker room mirrored the pulsating energy of the crowd of 73,000. The pressbox swayed. The floor shook. The din was deafening.
“It was probably the loudest I’ve heard the dome,” Lattimore said. “… And we love that. We love the crowd being in the game with us.”
“Choppa Style,” an anthem for this Saints team, blasted through the stadium speakers during a TV timeout, filling the cavernous dome with a frenetic feel that seemed to overwhelm the Eagles in the second half.
But with Foles — affectionately referred to as “St. Nick” in Philly due to his masterful playoff proficiency — there always is a chance. And in those final minutes of the fourth quarter, the Eagles still believed they could upset the top-seeded Saints. That is, until Foles and Jeffery failed to connect on that pivotal play.
“We had opportunities,” said Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews, whose 37-yard touchdown catch gave them a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. “… We played our heart out. We just came up short.”
Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson would later tell reporters that Jeffery had played the entire game with cracked ribs. But the injury mattered little to the often-reliable receiver, who shouldered the loss alone.
“One play doesn’t define me,” Jeffery said. “All the greats are going to miss game-winning shots or drop a pass or a touchdown. It happens. It’s a part of football. I just hate that way it happened in the playoffs and in the final moment.”
There’s also a good chance that errant pass will end up being the final throw of Foles’ Eagles career. The reigning Super Bowl MVP still wants to be an NFL starter, but with Carson Wentz the clear face of the franchise, Foles understands the reality of his situation.
“That’s a tough question,” he said, when asked if he wants to return to Philly. “… I think I am just going to do whatever I can to enjoy this flight back with my teammates and we will see what happens.”
Not surprisingly, Foles was one of the first people who tried to lift Jeffery’s spirits after his fatal drop.
“He said he loves playing with me,” said the receiver. “He loves throwing me the ball, making plays. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. We wouldn’t have won a Super Bowl if it wasn’t for me. But at the same time, it speaks to the volume of the character in this locker room, that we’re really family. I know it’s going to be a long offseason because it didn’t end the way we wanted it. But we’ll be back next year.”
The question is: Will Foles be back too?
— Kimberley A. Martin (@ByKimberleyA) January 14, 2019
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