HAYES: While fans despair without Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles still have faith

Philly.com (TNS)
  • The Philadelphia Eagles are 13-3 and the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
  • The Eagles play host to No. 6 seed Atlanta on Saturday.
  • Despite being the top seed, the Eagles, without injured QB Carson Wentz, are underdogs.

A few months ago, the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t really care what you thought.

They believed in themselves at the beginning of the season.

A few months later, they believe in themselves again. Even without Carson Wentz.

Quarterback Nick Foles will lead the Philadelphia Eagles into Saturday's NFC playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.

You should, too.

A few months ago, they understood the collective ambivalence toward the 2017 season. They’d been 7-9 in 2016. They’d collapsed at the end. That ambivalence motivated them, a little; but, for the most part, they couldn’t be bothered. They believed they would be really good. They were right.

Most of you — most of us — were not. No one saw 13 wins. Not playing at Dallas, Seattle and Kansas City. Not finishing against the Raiders and Cowboys. Not with those cornerbacks, or that offensive line. Not with a revamped receiving corps that had no Jordan Matthews, but had Nelson Agholor replacing him in the slot.

So, four months later, the Eagles again don’t really care what you think.

Eagles hear the talk: They feel the collective pessimism around the city, around the country and, endlessly, on TV. They hear how they can’t win with Nick Foles at quarterback, despite having done so twice since Wentz’s season ended; three times, if you count Foles’ fourth-quarter, relief-pitcher save at the Rams. They see the betting line, and how they’re the first No. 1 seed underdogs in divisional playoff history.

They feel it, and hear it, and see it, and it hurts; at least, a little. They briefly boycotted the press, and, by association, you. Then they grew up, got over it and went about the business of preparing for the game Saturday.

The wounds were minor. For the most part, they can’t be bothered with predictions of their doom. Most of them realize that, these days, we focus as much on the forecast as the outcome, and they know that forecasts aren’t foolproof. You’d think Trump and Brexit would have proven that.

Living in the moment: Instead, they’re living in the moment. It is a good policy, because it is a good moment.

It is a moment in which they’re 13-3, a top seed against a bottom seed. A moment in which they’re coming off a bye week, rested, refreshed, refocused; unlike the Falcons, who had to win in Los Angeles last week to make it to Philly for the second round. A moment in which the Eagles host a dome team in January; a team that hasn’t played a game in temperatures less than 50 degrees in more than three years. It’ll be 45 on Saturday.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, left, talks with head coach Doug Pederson before a game against the Oakland Raiders, Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, in Philadelphia. Wentz has an injured knee and will not play in the postseason.

It is a moment in which they begin their second season, in which they expect to win three games. Maybe you don’t expect that, but they do, and they’re excited about it. Maybe you should be excited, too.

After all, is this moment so different from September?

Who picked Carson Wentz to be the Pro Bowl starter or an MVP candidate? Who had Doug Pederson as a possible Coach of the Year? Who thought general manager Howie Roseman would push more correct buttons than Mission Control?

Team is more than Wentz: Sure, a lot needs to go right for the Eagles on Saturday. They will need a good running game and a stout defense. They will need Foles to make a couple of downfield throws, and they will need to limit turnovers. But then, a lot needed to go right in September, too.

More than anything, the team needed Wentz to move forward, and that happened, in quantum-leap fashion. But Wentz is over; done, with a torn ACL. Besides, Wentz alone would never have been enough. They needed big years from all their other cornerstones: right tackle Lane Johnson, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, tight end Zach Ertz, center Jason Kelce and safety Malcolm Jenkins.

Kelce is an All-Pro. Jenkins and Ertz are Pro Bowl players. Johnson, Wentz and Cox are both.

Bonus production: With Wentz, this was a great team, but every great team gets bonus production, and that was the case.

Right guard Brandon Brooks has earned a Pro Bowl spot. Defensive end Brandon Graham should have. Cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson played above their pay grade. So did undrafted rookie Corey Clement, who led the running backs with six touchdowns, and Stefen Wisniewski, who replaced Isaac Seumalo at left guard and saved the season. From Games 3-15, no Eagle played better than linebacker Nigel Bradham, who logged 17 tackles three times and had 10 solo tackles twice, and the Eagles went 12-1, and coordinator Jim Schwartz became a head-coaching candidate again.

Still a very good team: That’s why, with Foles, this is still a very good team. A team to be celebrated. Appreciated.

Instead, it is diminished, by a prevailing, bitter malaise.

This angst seems misplaced, considering how the Eagles got here. They did best what the Cowboys, Packers and Seahawks did worst. They survived attrition and added talent.

Without Ezekiel Elliott, Aaron Rodgers and Richard Sherman, those teams went nowhere. When the Eagles lost Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks and Ronald Darby, they rolled right along. Eventually, they treated themselves to Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi at the Halloween trade deadline. The Wentz Wagon had a lot to do with the rolling, but he elevated them from excellent to dominant. Excellent is a good thing to be in the second week of January. And they are about as excellent as they can be.

Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi celebrates after scoring touchdown against the Oakland Raiders, Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, in Philadelphia. Ajayi is expected to be fresh and ready to go for Saturday's playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Team should be fresh: Thanks to the Eagles’ clinching in Game 15, Ajayi is as fresh as an Amoroso roll at 4 a.m. In fact, for the past three weeks, Ajayi, Bradham and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan haven’t been hit by anything harder than bamboo sticks on a massage table. They should be at their best. So should the rest of the team, minus Wentz. That’s how they see it.

They see football as a game, not a showcase. The best quarterback doesn’t always win, especially in the early rounds. Even with Wentz, the Eagles weren’t a sure thing, but their fans, starved for validation after six decades of frustrations, talked themselves into that belief.

Could see it coming: You could see this coming. Entitlement crept into the streets of Philadelphia as Wentz & Co. piled win upon win. He became more than a good, young football player. He became the messiah.

That’s just wrong. They were really good even before he was great. By the time they won Game 6 at Carolina, it was plain they were the best team west of Massachusetts.

If you remove Wentz, then the entitlement vanishes, replaced by a bitter fatalism focused on what is lacking instead of what is there.

That’s how losers think. Winners just want a chance to win.

Winners enjoy the moment.