MINNEAPOLIS — In the year of the underdog, the Philadelphia Eagles have blown the NFL wide open again.
All week long, Philadelphia looked like another disposable Marvel villain in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick's Avengers franchise, never more so than when the Eagles took the lead against Tom Brady with what seemed like far too much time left on the clock.
It was the movie everybody had seen twice in the past three years, at least until Philadelphia defensive Brandon Graham shook off a game's worth of frustration and strip-sacked Brady to hand the Eagles a 41-33 win, the franchise's first Super Bowl and its first NFL title since 1960, the ultimate surprise twist to an NFL season that rarely went the way the "experts" saw it.
Rocky outlasted Apollo. The drought beat the dynasty. The backup beat the best quarterback to ever play the game.
The NFL used to thrive on this kind of unpredictability.
Free agency, a hard salary cap and the resulting inability to stockpile far more talent than the rest of the league meant that almost any team was capable of becoming a contender, save for the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Parity produced unpredictability, a quality magnified by the NFL's one-and-done playoffs. When Brady and the Patriots won their first championship, New England was the plucky underdog that was supposed to get steamrolled by Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show On Turf. A wild card Giants team knocked off an undefeated New England in Super Bowl 42, a wild-card Packers team won Super Bowl 45 and the Giants upset the Patriots again in Super Bowl 46.
Then chalk began to reign again. The No. 1 seeds in the playoffs started dominating — nine of the past 10 have reached the Super Bowl — order was restored and New England began building another dynasty, one improbable Brady comeback after another.
At least until 2017. With one glaring, blue, red and silver exception, this season was the embodiment of that unpredictability.
Every NFC division champ was something of a surprise. Philadelphia was thought to be a year away, inferior to Dallas and New York in the NFC East, and even after the Eagles played like the most complete team in the NFL most of the season, Doug Pederson and his troops were written off once Carson Wentz tore his ACL and Nick Foles entered the picture.
The Saints were mired in 7-9 mediocrity, written off by so many that people started calling to tear it all down after starting 0-2. Minnesota, third in the NFC North a year ago, lost its top quarterback and running back and still beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay and Matthew Stafford-led Detroit. Los Angeles went from the worst offense in the NFL to one of its most explosive under its new, young coach.
Even those Jaguars, the same ones who had long been a laughingstock, reached the AFC championship game, an appearance that was no fluke. Buffalo made the playoffs for the first time since Bill Clinton was the president.
Amid all of that upheaval, Belichick and Brady kept marching on, the same efficient, brilliant, inevitable empire that they've embodied ever since that first fateful Adam Vinatieri field goal, the Super Bowl favorite even when they were at their worst.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, fell out of favor as soon as Wentz went under the knife. Foles, who had one great season but mostly disappointment in his NFL career up until this point, was written off as a game manager.
Then he beat Atlanta, torched a talented Vikings defense and matched Brady throw for throw — shoot, his touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery and another to Corey Clement were better than any Brady throw all night — in a 373-yard, three-touchdown performance that also included Foles catching a touchdown pass on fourth down, a play dialed up by his aggressive coach, Pederson, a career backup himself.
But we've seen teams play well against New England before, and for most of the game, the Eagles' previously dominant defense wasn't up to the challenge. Exposed and open, Philadelphia gave up a whopping 505 passing yards to Brady, who nearly broke Norm Van Brocklin's NFL record of 554 passing yards in any game, let alone a Super Bowl.
When Foles found Zach Ertz for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:21 left, Brady's brilliance seemed to make the ending inevitable.
Until it didn't. Brady's Hail Mary fell incomplete, the confetti fell and Foles was handed the Super Bowl MVP of one of the most entertaining Super Bowls anybody's ever seen.
The Eagles, the team that plays in the city of Rocky Balboa, reminded everyone that the underdog can still beat the champ.
And that means just about any team in the NFL could find itself standing under the confetti next year.