Dominant defense propels Eagles into Super Bowl

PHILADELPHIA -- The stadium began to shake during cornerback Patrick Robinson's 50-yard interception return, much the way it did the week before when Jalen Mills wagged his finger over a fallen Julio Jones in the corner of the end zone.

"Yes," Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said when asked if this was the loudest he's ever heard Lincoln Financial Field. "Patrick Robinson's interception almost made me deaf."

This is a town that worships defense above all else. It's Chuck Bednarik and Reggie White and Brian Dawkins, who served as honorary captain Sunday and was splashed all over the Jumbotron to whip the crowd into a frenzy. The franchise doesn't have a Lombardi trophy yet, but the Philadelphia fans have that identity, and it has been enough to sustain them through a 58-year championship drought.

It's only fitting that it is the defense that has carried them to this point.

Robinson's pick-six midway through the first quarter stopped the Minnesota Vikings' momentum in its tracks, and rookie Derek Barnett's strip-sack in the second quarter served as a stomach punch from which Minnesota could not recover, as the Eagles surged to a 38-7 win in the NFC Championship Game. They advance to play Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis, a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX.

"We're going to the Super Bowl. We're going to the stinking Super Bowl, and that's all we need to know," coach Doug Pederson said when asked what message he delivered to the team after the game. "I was just so proud of them for the season so far. We still have some unfinished business, obviously. But we're going to pack our bags and head to Minneapolis."

The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas has installed the Patriots as 5.5-point favorites in Super Bowl LII. But the Eagles have grown quite accustomed to that role. They were the first No. 1 seed in NFL history to be underdogs in their opening playoff game, when the Atlanta Falcons were listed as three-point favorites in the divisional-round game. The Vikings were also three-point favorites. The Eagles embraced the underdog label, as did the city, which went out and bought "underdog" masks in droves after right tackle Lane Johnson and defensive end Chris Long broke them out postgame last week.

The odds have been against the Eagles since quarterback Carson Wentz was lost to a torn ACL against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14. Backup Nick Foles' erratic play down the stretch didn't help. But Foles rose to the occasion Sunday night, slicing the top-ranked defense to the tune of three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 141.4 quarterback rating.

No matter the state of the offense, Jim Schwartz's defense has been the constant that has allowed this team to endure. It has yielded 33 points total in its past four games, including a measly 17 points through two postseason contests. What separated this performance was the takeaways. The Eagles forced three against Minnesota compared to zero against Atlanta.

Robinson's interception return was monstrous. The Vikings scored easily on their first possession and were on the move again until Long pressured quarterback Case Keenum into an errant throw that Robinson took the distance.

"When I went out to flat, I saw the ball coming out and I was like, 'Oh, man, this is going to be an easy pick,'" Robinson said. "I remember two hours before the game I was like, when I get a pick I am not going out of bounds. I was running down the sideline and I was like, no, I definitely can't go out of bounds so I just cut it back upfield [Ronald] Darby made a great block, sprung me to the end zone."

Darby actually got flattened on the play by running back Jerick McKinnon, but it was effective all the same.

Barnett's time in the spotlight came later in the half. As fate would have it, the Eagles took him with the 14th overall selection, which was acquired from Minnesota in the Sam Bradford trade before the start of the 2016 season. He has been a regular contributor on arguably the best defensive line in football, and he created one of the biggest plays of the game by forcing a Keenum fumble that Long recovered.

The players involved in those two tide-turning moments -- Long, Robinson and Barnett -- speak to the kind of offseason executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman and the rest of the front office had. Robinson and Long were both low-cost free-agent signings, and Barnett was an immediate impact player at one of the game's most important positions: defensive end.

As this season has shown, it has been a collective effort, from the talent evaluators to Pederson and the coaching staff to the backups, such as Foles, who came in and performed to make up for key losses. But the defense led the way, and it did so once again Sunday to make the Eagles' Super Bowl dreams a reality.