EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Brandon Graham felt compelled to speak.
As his Eagles teammates collected their division champion baseball caps and green T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “The East Is Not Enough,” the veteran defensive end couldn’t let the moment pass. In a buoyant visitors locker room inside MetLife Stadium, at the conclusion of a grueling, rain-soaked Week 17 showdown with the New York Giants, Graham stood before his team and reminded every last man of everything still left to accomplish.
“Enjoy this one, but right now we’ve got to continue working,” he said, recounting his postgame speech during an interview with Yahoo Sports. “It’s a one-game season. The impossible can happen.
“People don’t believe, and that’s cool. Because we’re the ones that matter.”
Detractors had dogged them for weeks.
Nonbelievers decried their chances of salvaging their season.
(Myself, admittedly, being one of them.)
And through it all, these Eagles did not care. Nor did they expect anything less than a victory on Sunday.
In a win-and-you’re-in, playoff-or-bust matchup against the NFC East division rival Giants, these depleted Eagles dominated the home team on its own turf. And these Eagles — held together by backup players and practice-squad fill-ins — seized an opportunity to not only secure the division title but also vanquish the Dallas Cowboys from postseason play.
And never once did these Eagles believe another outcome was plausible.
“We were going to win this game, no matter how hard it was going to be,” Graham said after a second-half Eagles surge cemented the 34-17 victory.
The Daniel Jones-led Giants made things interesting … for a bit. Their lone highlight was a dazzling 68-yard touchdown run by second-year star Saquon Barkley that included a two-finger “peace out” gesture at nearby defenders 50 yards away from the end zone. But after that emphatic score, the Giants wilted down the stretch, and with it, shriveled Pat Shurmur’s chances of remaining their head coach.
Although Giants general manager Dave Gettleman declined after the game to give an update on Shurmur’s status — “We’ll talk Tuesday,” he tersely told reporters — Shurmur’s 9-23 record is dismal enough to all but ensure his dismissal.
Meanwhile, the Eagles entered Sunday a game ahead of the Cowboys in the standings. Unlike Jason Garrett’s guys, Philly didn’t need help to clinch a playoff berth. All the Eagles had to do was beat the lowly Giants and they were home free.
Few teams relish being overlooked as much as Philly.
No club lives to be labeled “underdogs” quite like Doug Pederson’s teams.
The 2017 squad that shocked the world to win Super Bowl LII wore external criticisms like a badge of honor, along with their trademark dog masks.
So, on Sunday, when they found themselves undermanned against the Giants — with 11 players on injured reserve and half of their starters unavailable due to injury — Philly didn’t fold. Instead, Carson Wentz responded with another impressive performance, throwing for 289 yards and a touchdown on 23 for 40 passing, to become the first quarterback in franchise history to throw for 4,000 or more yards in a single season.
“Even when there were a few drives where [our offense was] punting the ball, he’s not frustrated, he’s patient, he’s making good decisions,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “And that’s what we’ve needed in these games. Nobody’s been playing better than he has.”
Said Wentz: “The last few weeks have been backs against the wall for us. Guys have responded and stepped up and kept making play after play. Just keep believing. And here we are playing in January. Hopefully we can do something special.”
“If there’s any team that’s built for it, it’s us,” Jenkins added, referring to the injuries on offense in particular. “You’re looking at our starting receivers and some of these guys, you just learned their names a few days ago … But whoever we put out there, we expect them to produce.”
A 9-7 record isn’t particularly impressive when compared to teams like San Francisco, Seattle, Green Bay and New Orleans. But all that matters to these Eagles is the fact that they — not the Cowboys — will be hosting the Seahawks in next week’s wild-card round.
“We just have a bunch of scrappy players, guys that’s ready to lay it all out there for the team,” said defensive tackle Tim Jernigan. “ … When it’s crunch time and you’ve got to have it, every year since I’ve been here, we’re going to get it done. Last year, we were just one play away and we’re right back in the Super Bowl. That’s one thing I know about this team: I know they’re going to fight with me. They know I’m going to fight with them. We’re in this together. Players and coaches. It doesn’t matter what goes on during the week, we will figure it out.”
When time expired on Sunday, the Eagles’ drenched general manager, Howie Roseman, pumped his fist as he jogged off the field and into the tunnel leading to the locker room. Wentz tossed his knit cap into the crowd of Philly faithfuls — those brave souls who endured the frigid air and the sheets of unrelenting rain and who chanted his name in deafening adoration. And as he trotted through the tunnel, Graham eyed someone holding up one of the “The East Is Not Enough” T-shirts.
“There goes my shirt!” he yelled with glee.
After everything these Eagles have endured, reaching the playoffs never felt so good.
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