PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles’ season did not end six weeks ago in the fading Southern California daylight, when the star quarterback Carson Wentz tore a knee ligament. Nor did it end four weeks ago, when his replacement, Nick Foles, slogged through an ugly victory on Christmas night. Nor did it end last week, when the Eagles, underdogs at home despite holding the N.F.C.’s top seed, eked out a playoff win.
Now the Eagles know for sure when their season will end.
No matter what, it will conclude on Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, site of Super Bowl LII, just as they said it would, as they knew it would. Philadelphia got there Sunday by trampling Minnesota in a 38-7 rout in the N.F.C. championship. The margin of victory defied all good sense to anyone following both teams over the last month but affirmed all that which the Eagles believed.
“I mean, when you execute, that’s what it looks like,” receiver Torrey Smith said.
The players told themselves and each other, and anyone else who would listen, that they would advance, that they could minimize Wentz’s absence because of the talent that remained and the coaches who would lead them.
By nature and nurture, a certain fatalism courses through the fans here. Winning one major professional sports championship since 1983 underpins that inferiority complex. The Eagles have won the second-most playoff games (17) in the Super Bowl era without winning a title.
Another chance for glory awaits in two weeks, and early in the fourth quarter Sunday a crowd full of people who had waited 13 years since the Eagles’ last Super Bowl appearance — and who had shifted nervously when Minnesota scored a touchdown on its opening drive — started singing along to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
In halting Minnesota’s quest to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, Foles destroyed the league’s stingiest scoring defense, completing 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
He became the only quarterback in franchise history to throw for a least 300 yards and three touchdowns in a postseason game, and no moment was more symbolic than the first of those scoring tosses — a 53-yarder to Alshon Jeffery, who spurned the Vikings last off-season to sign with Philadelphia. Bouncing in the pocket, Foles stayed cool and delivered a perfect ball downfield despite getting smacked in the shoulder by the Vikings’ Everson Griffen.
“Every time he threw the ball,” center Jason Kelce said, “he was on point.”
That touchdown, which extended Philadelphia’s lead to 21-7, devastated the Vikings, who have now lost their last six conference championship games. As any Vikings fan knows, the real Minnesota Miracle is not the last-second victory last week but a Super Bowl berth, which they have not earned in 41 years.
The primary symbols of Minnesota’s futility across that span — Gary Anderson’s missed field goal and Brett Favre’s interception and Darrin Nelson’s drop — have worn purple and white. On this night, it was the Eagles who inflicted the misery, not that it offered any relief.
It was Chris Long, a menace off the edge, who helped force an interception and recovered a fumble. It was Patrick Robinson, who wove through the Vikings on a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown that revived the building. And it was, unquestionably, Foles, who flummoxed the Vikings with passes long and short — even a flea-flicker touchdown to Torrey Smith — and rewarded the steadfast faith and masterly play-calling of Coach Doug Pederson to continue leading Philadelphia down a familiar path.
The last time the Eagles reached the Super Bowl, in the 2004 season, they defeated Atlanta and Minnesota before facing New England, just as they have, and will, in this postseason. They will be the underdog in Minneapolis, as they have been in both of their playoff games, and that will not bother them one iota.
“People can do whatever they want — count us out, count us in,” running back Jay Ajayi said. “We’re playing in the Super Bowl. They’re going to have to sit back and watch us do that.”
That the Eagles emerged from a rugged N.F.C., ahead of recent conference champions (Atlanta and Carolina) and teams with Hall of Fame quarterbacks (New Orleans), would have been less surprising had Wentz not gotten hurt. That December night in Los Angeles, after Wentz left with a knee injury, and after Foles came on to direct them to a division-clinching victory against the Rams that improved their record to 11-2, safety Malcolm Jenkins gathered the team in a cramped Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum locker room and peddled positives. Nothing had changed, he said. The goal remained the same.
Afterward, speaking to reporters, he said, “Do we have a quarterback on the roster?”
“O.K., then,” Jenkins said.
The Eagles had Foles, who, as his teammates will readily remind you, threw 27 touchdowns in 2013. He broke his collarbone the next season, then got traded in 2015, nearly retired in 2016 and returned to Philadelphia in 2017, to back up Wentz.
“You feel like you played a great game in L.A., you have the best record in football, and you lose your most valuable player — or maybe the league’s most valuable player,” the Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “However, we made such a concerted effort to make sure we could get Nick back on the team. Who knew it would come to this?”
Foles threw four touchdowns in his first start, against the Giants, but muddled through a tight win against Oakland and sputtered against Dallas in Week 17. Directing a simplified game plan last week, when the Eagles were the first top seed in N.F.L. history to be favored to lose its playoff game, Foles guided them over Atlanta.
But the Vikings?
“When people doubt you, you can feel it,” Foles said after the game. “We’re all human and I’m keeping it real. When someone doubts you, you know. These guys that I play with knew that I would eventually just keep working at it. They know me as a person and they know me as a player, and we just kept working.”
According to N.F.L. research, the last five teams that won a playoff game on a touchdown in sudden-death or as time expired, as the Vikings did with Stefon Diggs’s 61-yard catch against the Saints, lost their next game, by an average of 23 points. Minnesota, with a defense that ranked second against the run and pass and first in points allowed, seemed immune to such unraveling.
By the game’s third drive, which ended with Robinson’s interception, the Eagles had rendered Diggs’s catch anticlimax. Long whacked the arm of Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, sending the pass fluttering toward Robinson, who knew at once that he would catch it.
“I don’t think it just pumped the offense,” Foles said. “I think it pumped up the whole city of Philadelphia. I think everyone down Broad Street heard that.”
The Eagles kept coming. Minnesota had dared Foles to beat them, but now the Eagles were daring the Vikings to stop him. Foles executed the run-pass option with precision, reading the Minnesota linebacker to either hand off or, more often, throw short passes — and usually complete them. In speaking about him last week, Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich cited Foles’s pedigree as a coveted point-guard recruit before he chose to play football.
“He can give you the no-look pass,” Reich said. “He can be looking one way and hit a guy. He has that knack and feel.”
Philadelphia pummeled the Vikings’ units, one by one. The defense first, with a 75-yard drive, capped by LeGarrette Blount’s 11-yard trucking of Eric Kendricks en route to the end zone. Then, with Minnesota in the red zone, a strip-sack of Keenum by the rookie Derek Barnett — taken with the first-round pick Philadelphia received for trading Sam Bradford to Minnesota — was recovered by Long. Keenum, harassed all night, committed all three turnovers.
“We’re all just trying to get to the quarterback,” Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “Coach always says, ‘Stop the run, go have fun.’ We got a chance to do that and do a bunch of different things. We had a chance to go out and dominate.”
Their defense did. Their offense did, too. The Eagles lost several players to season-ending injuries — a superb left tackle (Jason Peters), a middle linebacker (Jordan Hicks), a slippery running back (Darren Sproles), a special-teams ace (Chris Maragos) — but the rest of the team just kept playing. They kept playing and playing, winning and winning, and now look.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl,” Pederson said. “We’re going to the stinking Super Bowl.”
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