The Philadelphia Eagles have done what almost nobody—including yours truly—ever thought they could. Dominating the New England Patriots for practically the entire game, the Eagles refused to become yet another victim of Tom Brady’s trademark, fourth-quarter rallies. Nick Foles played the game of his career—particularly when you consider the stakes—to prove those of us wrong who considered him no match for Brady and company.
And as it turned out, there was no magic formula for whipping the Patriots. Philadelphia earned its first-ever Lombardi Trophy mainly by doing everything that New England normally does to their playoff opponents, but doing it better. Foles threw some picture-perfect TD passes which looked every bit like they might have been chucked by Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers. Certainly, they were on a par with any of Brady’s clutch throws. For nearly the entire game, the Eagles’ offense doggedly maintained a lead, forcing the Patriots into the unfamiliar role of playing catch-up throughout. And when the game was on the line late in the fourth quarter, it was Belichick and Brady who blinked, not Pederson and Foles.
It’s unlikely that even Carson Wentz could have done any better job than Foles did in running the Eagles’ offense on Super Sunday. But if Wentz can merely resume his level of play prior to the ACL injury—even if Foles decides to put his freshly-minted, Super Bowl pedigree on the open market and signs with another team—the Eagles look like they’re going to be a very good football team for quite some time.
What does the outcome of Super Bowl 52 have to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers, you might ask? The league championship showcased two teams, each of which has developed a formula that enables them to continue winning regardless of their team’s changing cast of characters. For example, when the Pats’ top receiver Brandin Cooks was knocked out of the game by a vicious hit in the second quarter, the effect on New England’s offensive performance was virtually negligible, as Brady continued to carve up the Eagles’ secondary at will. As for the Eagles, they might have folded up their tent when Wentz was lost for the season in Week 14 but, instead, they found a way to run the table throughout the playoffs and Super Bowl.
Both teams in this year’s Super Bowl are tenacious contenders that usually find a way to win regardless of injuries or other distractions. But trying to fit the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers into this mold doesn’t work so well. The Steelers were the team that allowed the off-the-field stuff to distract from their ultimate goal. And as Steelers fans, could we even imagine the Black-and-gold winning a Super Bowl under the leadership of a second-string quarterback, as the Eagles managed to do? Likewise, would Pittsburgh have the same confidence shown by the Pats if they had been playing in Super Bowl 52 and Antonio Brown had been knocked out in the second quarter?
This year’s Super Bowl shows us just how high the championship bar is for the Steelers to reach. To compete and win against teams like the Eagles and Pats, you need excellent roster depth at key positions, plus the resilience to bounce back from adversity—as New England did in Super Bowl 51 and the Eagles did this year. It’s obvious the Steelers still have some work to do to reach that level of capability. Steelers Nation can hate and criticize the Patriots or other teams until our hearts are content but, at the end of the day, it’s performance on the field which speaks most strongly. While the conclusion of a disappointing season might be a popular time for sniping, you don’t improve by claiming your rivals are overrated.
So let’s hope this off-season will be a period of effective and judicious retooling for Mike Tomlin and his team. By most measures (except the one that counts most to fans), the Steelers had a successful 2017 season. While that’s something positive to build on, it’s also a reminder of the substantial gap existing between playoff also-rans and Super Bowl teams.
At the opposite end of the Keystone State, a gritty Eagles team has captured its first-ever Lombardi Trophy. In the process, they’ve shown us clearly what it takes to slay the Brady dragon and reach the Promised Land. If the Steelers play their cards right, then perhaps Super Bowl 53 might turn out to be dubbed the Battle of Pennsylvania.