Must be St. Nick: Eagles' Foles delivers Christmas miracle

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jeremy Maclin hangs on to the game-winning touchdown in front of Tampa's Leonard Johnson as time expires.
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jeremy Maclin hangs on to the game-winning touchdown in front of Tampa's Leonard Johnson as time expires.
Posted: December 11, 2012

TAMPA - Two seconds left, Eagles' ball just inside the Tampa 2-yard line, Bucs call timeout, Nick Foles trots to the sideline.

Marty Mornhinweg holds up a list of what he later refers to as "plus-5, red-zone, fourth-down-to-win-the-game" plays.

"He called it," Mornhinweg said. "He said, 'I want that one.' I didn't quite hear him. I said, 'Who said that? You say that?' "

Indeed, Foles had said that. The offensive coordinator didn't need to hear any more. He high-fived the rookie quarterback. Eagles coach Andy Reid said, "Let's do it," Foles later told reporters.

"Usually, any time a quarterback wants something specific, allow 'em to do it; they'll take ownership of it, and he sure did, didn't he?" Mornhinweg said, after Foles rolled right and hit Jeremy Maclin, sliding in the end zone near the sideline, for the Eagles' first victory since Sept. 30, 23-21 over Tampa Bay, with the extra point.

Maclin, shoved out of bounds belatedly by Bucs corner Leonard Johnson, sprung up off his knees and went running toward midfield, where a group of teammates swarmed him. Generally, the win that takes an NFL team from 3-9 to 4-9 doesn't merit quite that level of celebration, but hey, the Eagles hadn't won since that pirate ship in the Raymond James Stadium end zone was still patrolling the high seas. Or so it seemed Sunday afternoon to the Eagles.

"I think he's got guts. I think this whole team's got guts. Certainly, big Nick's got some guts. He just performed beautifully in the clutch . . . I think he's off and running, there," Mornhinweg said.

There's the crucial point, of course. A last-second win for a team going nowhere? Not much resonance. But when you desperately need to know if your rookie quarterback is someone you can build around, and his 381-yard passing day includes a pair of touchdown throws in the final 4 minutes, and he goes over to the sideline before the final play, tells you what the right call is, then executes it - that's decent stuff, right there. It doesn't guarantee anything, of course, but the last 3 weeks have seen Foles go from 119 passing yards against Carolina to a solid 251 at Dallas to 381 and a huge comeback for a win at Tampa. He is not just dumping the ball off and checking down anymore, and he hasn't thrown an interception since his first start, in Washington on Nov. 18.

Yes, the Eagles need to lose out for draft position. Blah, blah, blah. Just maybe, having a quarterback you can build around is a bigger deal than whether you draft third or fourth in a draft everyone says lacks franchise QBs.

Sunday, Foles did not have Bryce Brown to lean on. The Bucs' defense, first against the rush and last against the pass, held the rookie running back to 6 yards on 12 carries. Foles was under intense pressure most of the day, sacked six times, rarely able to survey the field from a clean pocket. He sidestepped rushers and hit receivers in clutch spots. He ran three times for 27 yards, including a 10-yard TD. He had no LeSean McCoy, no DeSean Jackson, and he lost Brent Celek to a concussion on the first play of the game, but Foles made the offense work anyway, gaining his first NFL victory.

"Pretty good, wasn't it?" Mornhinweg said.

"He called it, he wanted it, and he executed it. He did a great job of it, so hat's off to him," Reid said. "He was feeling it. It's a great thing when your quarterback is in tune like that."

Foles took the podium, which was set up in a hallway outside the visitors' locker room, still wearing his white road uniform, still buzzing with excitement.

"This is a special game. It's a big win for us. We haven't won in, like, 2 months [70 days, actually, but who's counting?] The emotions are going crazy right now," said Foles, who completed 32 of 51 passes, with nine completions to Maclin, for 104 yards, and seven to slot receiver Jason Avant, whose 133 gritty yards included the catch that set up the TD, 22 yards on fourth-and-5 from the 23, ball snapped with 16 seconds remaining and the Eagles void of timeouts.

"I just like a movement play in that situation because it changes throwing lanes," Foles said of the touchdown. "If you're in the pocket, a guy can undercut it, whereas if you're on the run, there's no undercut."

Then Foles, given a chance to burnish the legend, went the other way: "I just like movement plays. It felt good. It was the first play that came to my head."

The end of the Eagles' eight-game losing streak looked like a slam dunk until rookie punt returner Damaris Johnson muffed a fair catch a little less than 3 minutes into the third quarter, Tampa Bay recovering on the Eagles' 5. At that point the Birds led 10-0 and it should have been more; Alex Henery's 53-yard field goal before halftime was negated by a false start, then he missed from 58, snapping his franchise-record streak of 22 straight.

When the Bucs cashed in three plays after the Johnson muff, and then Foles put the Birds in position for a 31-yard FG, but holder Mat McBriar didn't get the laces pointed out and Henery missed, it was 10-7, instead of 16-0 Eagles.

For a good while after that, it sure seemed like the team that had lost eight in a row was going to find a way to make it nine. Suddenly the pass rush, seemingly revived in the wake of defensive-line coach Jim Washburn's dismissal, disappeared again. Suddenly, wild-throwing Bucs QB Josh Freeman was finding Vincent Jackson (six catches, 131 yards), often at the expense of Nnamdi Asomugha, who returned to the game after suffering neck and thigh injuries when he was flipped in the first half. Suddenly, running back Doug Martin, held to 34 yards on nine carries in the first half, was rumbling 19 times for 94 yards in the second half.

With 7:21 remaining, a 4-yard Martin run gave the Bucs a 21-10 lead. Right then, you could have gotten pretty enticing odds had you wanted to bet on a winning Eagles comeback.

"You just keep playing. You keep playing for each other," Foles said.

"He took it all on his shoulders," left guard Evan Mathis said of Foles. "He was strong; he knew where the receivers were going to be, where the openings would be, and he executed."

Foles drove the Eagles 72 yards in eight plays, finding tight end Clay Harbor in the back of the end zone after a third-down scramble, from the Bucs' 11, with 3:55 left. The Birds went for two and Foles was hit as he tried to throw to Dion Lewis.

The Bucs could have put the game away when they got the ball back, but all Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano wanted to see from Freeman was a series of handoffs to Martin, even after a holding call put the Bucs in second-and-17. On third-and-8, Martin's foray up the middle was met at the line of scrimmage by Fletcher Cox, and Tampa Bay had to punt.

The game-winning drive was 64 yards, 13 plays, no timeouts. It included a 23-yard completion to Maclin on third-and-14 from the Eagles' 32 and a 3-yard Foles scramble on fourth-and-1 from the Bucs' 31.

"The offensive line didn't help him out early in the game, and throughout the game, with the pressure, but he never got upset, never changed his composure. He stayed focused," rookie right tackle Dennis Kelly said. "It was kind of one of those things like, if he can do it, we can do it."


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: eagletarian.com

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