On Friday night at the team hotel, Eagles coach Nick Sirianni flipped on the closing battle scene from 8 Mile. In it, Eminem confronts Papa Doc—and everything Papa Doc knows about him, and everyone else knows about him—and uses all of it to take his rival down.
The moment became Eminem’s as a result.
Sirianni then challenged his Eagles to seize Saturday’s divisional playoff against the Giants in the same sort of way. Before Week 18, the coach had shown those same guys in that same room video of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan to remind them of who they’d been all year—after an uneven month prior. And the Eminem example was about owning all of that, and doing it against a familiar opponent.
“It was just more about—We already know what we’re facing and we already know what they’re going to throw at us,” veteran defensive end Brandon Graham says. “So let’s just go out there and be us.”
As a result, the Eagles were unapologetically themselves Saturday night, right down to Sirianni jawing with the ref over running down the sideline to call a timeout (“I know what the f— I’m doing, and I’m allowed to be down here”). And what they were, and are, was more than enough to get Philly to the NFC championship game with a 38–7 win over the Giants.
The final score might not quite do justice to the bludgeoning that Philly’s guests from up the Jersey Turnpike took in prime time. The Eagles doubled up the Giants in first downs, 26–13 (It was 18–3 at the half), and 416–227 in yards from scrimmage (258–64 at the half). And the Eagles held the ball for over 35 minutes (more than 20 in the first half) to control this thing from start to finish.
Just like Eminem came after Papa Doc in that famous scene, the Eagles put the Giants in a locker early and held them there the rest of the night. Jalen Hurts had two touchdown passes before he threw an incompletion. Philly had three touchdowns before the Giants picked up their fourth first down. It was 28–0 at the half, and Philly was content from there to continue delivering body blows that, eventually, would lead to a couple finishing shots.
Graham said to me after the game, “Honestly, I was a little nervous just because you play a team three times, and they were confident …”
And, sometimes, weird things can happen. But this time around? There was nothing weird, again, because the Eagles spent the past few weeks leaning so hard into who they are.
They did that through those videos that Sirianni showed them. But it also happened during the bye week, with what Graham called a renewed focus on “what we’re good at.”
“We got back to the basics,” Graham says. “And it’s always good to remind yourself of the basics; that’s what we’ve been preaching all week, all year. I feel like a lot of stuff showed up that we practiced this week. And it was little things, man.”
The best example came on the second-to-last play of the first quarter, with Philly leading 14–0. The Eagles had been drilled in practice on a bread-and-butter Giants pass concept Thursday, and James Bradberry had it down to the point where he sniffed out what the scout team was doing at the snap, and got a good enough jump on the ball to undercut the route of the receiver to the left side of the formation and intercept the quarterback.
The same scenario unfolded Saturday. Bradberry was ready for what his former team was throwing at him. Facing a simulated pressure, Daniel Jones hurriedly unloaded the ball underneath to Darius Slayton—who slipped—and Bradberry dove for the pick.
“Same route. Same thing,” Graham says. “With James, that route right there, he’s been doing it since training camp. And that’s one right there that we’ve seen coming because of what we did in practice.”
It also, Graham continued, was a result of the details in routes that Sirianni and his staff demand from their receivers, which had a way of training Bradberry on what to look for.
So that’s the small-picture part. The bigger picture, though, relates to the 2017 title team, and how the foundation of this year’s team and that year’s team—another “Who We Are” element—is very similar. Both the ’17 team and this team found strength along the line of scrimmage. And where so much of the roster has turned over since the Eagles won the world title behind Doug Pederson and Nick Foles, ties between the two teams exist up front.
Five players are left from 2017. One is kicker Jake Elliott. The other four are linemen, two on offense (Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce), two on defense (Graham, Fletcher Cox), all of whom have at least a decade of experience in the league.
Which makes how the Eagles finished the Giants off just as telling as the rush of points and stops were in the first half. With 3:56 left, a Graham sack on first-and-10 sparked one final turnover on downs forced by the defense. Then, right after the two-minute warning, the Eagles’ front sprung Kenneth Gainwell free on third-and-9 for one final touchdown, breaking the Giants’ defense for the final 35 of 268 rushing yards.
“If you want to go far in this game, it starts up front,” Graham says. “You have to be able to push, and you gotta have strength on both sides, offense and defense. It always starts up front. Every play starts with who’s coming off the hardest and who can get pushed to disrupt the quarterback or keep the quarterback out of pressure. And we do a great job up front both ways of sharpening each other. I’m just excited because I know that everybody is healthy.
“And everybody is feeling good.”
Mostly, Graham continued, it’s because these Eagles, after that December swoon, and having to go a few weeks without Hurts, have found themselves again.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid stood at the door of the home team locker room at Arrowhead early Saturday evening, waiting for the last of his players to return from the field so he could welcome them back himself after a gutty, gritty playoff win against the Jaguars. While he was there, he couldn’t help but hear what the guys already behind him, inside that room, were saying.
“They’re going, This guy’s unbelievable,” Reid told me a couple hours after the game. “Guys talking about it on the defensive side, they’re going Pat Mahomes is unbelievable. He’s unbelievable. These are his teammates now. And then when I brought him up … it started being a thing for them. They were cheering him. I said, A lot of teams aren’t blessed with a quarterback that’s as gritty as that. And you guys have been around to know how that thing goes, but to have a quarterback that is that tough, that’s a special deal.
“And then to have two of them that can step in, that’s even better. But for sure, the thing Pat did today was, he’s a tough kid.”
The Chiefs’ 27–20 win Saturday was, definitively, about Mahomes, who suffered a high ankle sprain. But as Reid says, it was also about more than just Mahomes. It was about Chad Henne, and Isaiah Pacheco, and a veteran defensive front and young secondary coming together when it mattered most.
Which is to say, there are two parts to the story of the Chiefs getting to a fifth consecutive AFC championship game in Mahomes’ fifth year as starter.
Let’s start with Mahomes, and how his afternoon started with the normal superhero stuff.
On the Chiefs’ first drive, there was a jump pass in a collapsing pocket to Travis Kelce for 14 yards. There was how he dropped his arm to get a sidearm bullet around Travon Walker to Juju Smith-Schuster for another 13. Then he kept his head with linebacker Devin Lloyd around his waist to get the ball to Kelce for the eight-yard touchdown.
Mahomes took the Chiefs 83 yards in 12 plays on that possession. The Jaguars played well enough. The 27-year-old quarterback just happened to be unstoppable. Then, he wasn’t.
On the fifth play of the Chiefs’ next possession, after another two first downs, Mahomes’ leg bent back under the weight of Jacksonville pass-rusher Arden Key, who’d attached himself to Mahomes’s jersey. The Chiefs called timeout, grinded out another first down, and then positioned Harrison Butker for a 50-yard field goal.
Mahomes came back to the sideline, trainer Rick Burkholder came to see him, and that’s where Reid gave the quarterback his directive—go to the locker room—now. Mahomes pleaded his case, saying he could get an X-ray at halftime. Reid shook his head, and told him they had no idea how hurt he was, and couldn’t risk the rest of his season for another series or two. Mahomes threw down his jacket and walked off.
“Rick did a good job with it, but he [Mahomes] wanted to go in, and I was trying to give him a chance to just kind of cool down a little bit,” Reid says. “I wasn’t going to put him back in unless we had the X-Ray done. So I just said Listen, go take care of that and then we’ll see where we’re at. But I’m not going to [put him at risk]—if he can’t get out of his own way; then you have a problem there. So that’s what we did.”
Which is where the second part of the story unfolded. Chad Henne started warming up and, having thrown all of two passes (both incomplete) all year, he entered a 10–7 playoff game. The 37-year-old took some snaps with left-handed center Creed Humphrey, trying to get used to how the ball hit his hands. He went through the ranking of red-zone and third-down plays all the quarterbacks individually give Reid each week. And it was go time.
For the time being, at least, the Chiefs would have to be about more than Mahomes, and they’d have to prove they were, first, backed all the way up on their own 2-yard line.
Nine plays into the drive, with a mix of underneath throws from Henne and Pacheco runs getting Kansas City from the shadow of the goal line, the Chiefs faced a third-and-3 from their own 38. The Jaguars sent everyone. And that’s where Henne took command.
“That was cover zero, they started heating me up after we kind of got the ball out, I was getting the ball out quickly, and then they were realizing like Alright, we’re not going to let this happen,” Henne says. “And making the protection call, I feel like that was a big moment, getting it to Kels [Kelce], on that third-and-3, getting that play going and realizing that if they’re going to bring pressure, I can get the ball out and make the right decision. I don’t think they pressured after that, throughout the drive.”
Standing in to make the four-yard throw to Kelce and taking a hit from Key, and getting 15 yards for it on a roughing call, helped too. Pacheco then bounced an inside run out for 39 yards to set up Henne’s 1-yard touchdown throw, again, to Kelce on a pick play. “He’s a beast,” says Henne about Pacheco, “and he runs so hard.”
That’d be Henne’s only series, but it lasted 12 plays, 98 yards and changed the game.
It’s also why, afterward, Henne’s old boss from Jacksonville, Tom Coughlin, texted Reid, “Whatever you’re paying him, he’s worth every penny.” And that value’s always gone well beyond what everyone saw Saturday.
“Being kind of the senior leader in that room, he’s been great for Pat, real stable support from a peer standpoint, non-coaching standpoint, he’s been just so supportive,” Reid says. “And then it’s also good when a guy’s still playing the game and can talk to you and you can bounce things off of him. His value is great in that area. He’d be a great coach, too, down the road.”
Henne got word at halftime that Mahomes was going to give it a go after the break, but the spark he gave the rest of the team was palpable, and that’d be important with the starter not physically whole. The young defense forced consecutive punts to start the half, Butker kicked another 50-yarder, and after the Jags scored at the start of the fourth quarter, KC would need everyone, including their hobbled quarterback.
It started with Mahomes willing the offense downfield, and leaning on Kelce to move the chains, and moving around on one leg, and driving the Chiefs 75 yards in 10 plays without having to face a single third down when the team needed it most, up just three. And it was capped with a jump pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling for six yards and the touchdown when it seemed like that kind of play should be off the table.
“The last one to Marquez where he had to move around and then run up in the pocket and then throw it, that was …” Reid says, pausing, “that was pretty good.”
Up 27–17, the defense then pounced, with Nick Bolton covering a Jamal Agnew fumble in the red zone, and rookie Jaylen Watson picking off Trevor Lawrence to end the Jaguars’ next two possessions, and put Kansas City back in the AFC title game.
“Everybody stepped up,” Reid says. “It was great. That was a great thing.”