Head coach Doug Pederson held back emotions as he spoke at the podium following the Eagles’ 20-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the NFC Divisional Round on Sunday.
A magical and improbable run came to a crushing finish and Pederson answered questions following a playoff loss for the first time in his young career as an NFL head coach.
“It's tough. It's tough because it's so final,” Pederson said. “You're here at the end of the season and there's no more football for 2018. I just told the guys to keep their heads up.
“We set out on a journey back in OTAs and we kept talking about having no regrets and leaving everything out on the field. They did that this afternoon and they battled right to the end. We had opportunities. I'm proud of them, proud of the season, proud of the adversity that we faced all season long, and that we found our way to get into the postseason. And I just wish the Saints good luck going forward.”
Pederson’s first responsibility as the game ended was to provide support for wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. With the Eagles looking for a go-ahead score late, a ball intended for the Eagles’ top receiver went through his hands and was intercepted by Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore to seal the game. Pederson consoled the heartbroken Jeffery on the sideline.
“It's hard. It's really hard because he's so down,” Pederson said. “But for me, it's about staying positive. And listen, he's made many, many big catches for us this season and he will continue to do that. And I just told him he has to keep his head up and don’t let one play define you. It's not who he is. He's too good of a player. He'll embrace it, obviously, and he'll be better for it, but I told him just to keep his head up and keep plowing.”
The Eagles took a 14-0 lead going into the second quarter before an interception of quarterback Nick Foles allowed the Saints to get on the board and changed the momentum dramatically. The Eagles didn’t score again.
“Yeah, you felt it a little bit,” Pederson said. “But listen, we had a lot of confidence even at that point. It felt like we were moving the ball, we were in rhythm. We felt even on that drive that we could have scored if we hit that play. It kind of changed after that point but again, credit the Saints for executing.”
Foles finished 18-of-31 passing for 201 yards, a passing and a rushing touchdown, and those two interceptions. Those throws were costly, as were a few other misses on the day.
But Pederson was proud of the way Foles battled in the game and the season to get the Eagles to this point. Foles' future is uncertain, as he is currently scheduled to become a free agent in the offseason. Pederson said he told him after the game that he loved him and was proud of him for what he did for this team.
“There's always throws that you want to have back in every game, but I thought the way he hung in there and battled and gave our offense a chance to go down and possibly win this football game,” Pederson said. “I thought overall he played pretty well.”
The key factor in the game, as Pederson saw it, was the team’s execution on third down on both sides of the ball. The Eagles were efficient early on both sides of the ball but struggled as the game progressed. The Saints finished 8-of-15 on third down and the Eagles were just 2-of-7.
“That to me is kind of the telltale,” Pederson said. “We just couldn't get off the field enough defensively with 15 third downs. It's a credit to get to 15 but we need to get off the field. Conversely, seven third downs is great, but you've got to convert a few more of those.”
This Eagles team will not be the same next season. Key players are set to become free agents and there will be the typical turnover that comes in an NFL offseason. Several Eagles who were important in bringing a Super Bowl title to the city and who have grown close with both Pederson and the fans will not be in Philadelphia next season.
“It's tough because these guys, you build relationships with these guys,” Pederson said. “You spend so much time with these guys. You spend so much time together. And every year your roster is going to change. That's just how it's going to go. People are going to go. Obviously, we'll talk more about in the next coming days. But when you build relationships with these guys, it makes it that much harder.”
But the important takeaway from the 2018 season is just how much this group accomplished. Through a mountain of crippling injuries and gut-wrenching losses, the Eagles remained committed and stayed together. They overcame a 4-6 record 10 games in and went 5-1 to close out the regular season before beating the top-ranked defense on the road in the playoffs.
A lot of what the Eagles team was able to do is a credit to Pederson and the culture he’s established. Although the loss stings now, he plans to build on what was done this season going forward.
“I tell you, you've got to have a lot of confidence in the guys and the coaches to get to this position, to be in the Divisional Round, two games away from the Super Bowl again,” Pederson said. “It's tough in this league to win games.
“And even back when a lot of guys were counting us out back in midseason, after the Dallas game, things like that, it's why you play 16 games, to give yourself a shot to be in this position. Looking forward, it's a good football team. It's a good football team and we're going to learn from this. We'll be better from it.”
Check out the best photos from the Eagles' game against the Saints in the Divisional Round.