The party in Philadelphia will start in the early afternoon, at the latest, as the fans celebrate the Super Bowl Championship and, simultaneously, the opening of the 2018 NFL season. At that time, the Eagles will be sequestered in their team hotel, staying busy with final-hours preparation for the Atlanta Falcons. You see, Thursday is one of those days and nights that comes along only once, as we’ve learned, in a generation (or two, in this instance) and those who handle all of the goings-on will prosper.
And those who don’t are going to fail.
“Yeah, that’s the biggest challenge,” head coach Doug Pederson told me earlier in the week. “It’s a long day and the guys are going to be amped up, I believe, and so being able to control the emotion of the atmosphere and the type of playoff atmosphere that this is going to be is the key. We don’t want to expend all that energy early in the day. We want to be able to save it and bottle it up for the game, so how we approach that day is going to be critical in how we start this football game.”
Having played four Thursday night preseason games helps the players in their hour-by-hour preparation for the opener, and the coaching staff knows how to keep the players engaged mentally and fresh physically during the long hours of waiting. A staggered series of meetings at the team hotel will make sure of that.
But what’s it going to be like when the players arrive at Lincoln Financial Field late in the afternoon on a hot, steamy, and potentially stormy day with the fans already in full tailgate and party mode? The players will park their automobiles in the back lot of the stadium, walk through the rear entrance to the locker room and go about their business, as usual. They’ll notice that the stands will be packed by 7:30 p.m. for the 8:20 kickoff and that the energy level will be off the charts.
Then the players will finish their warmups and file back into the locker room, and that’s when the fun begins for the fans. With a strict schedule dictated by national television, the Eagles will unveil the Super Bowl Championship banner and then the teams will be introduced. It’s not going to be normal as the players run onto the field and see the banner and hear the crowd and understand that, yeah, this is different.
“I’m excited about it, the whole thing,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “I know I’m going to be amped. I want to see that banner, feel it, and be proud of it and then it’s time to play football. I don’t think it’s going to be any problem at all to be right for this one. This is what it’s all about.”
The players have been asked about their anticipated emotions for Thursday night. Some, like wide receiver Nelson Agholor, said “I haven’t really thought of it. I’m going to be focused on playing my best football.” Many of the players, though, have acknowledged that the moment is going to be special and that the emotional pitch in the stadium will be unusual.
And that the players have to manage that energy.
“It comes down to playing football, but we know it’s going to be something special,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “You just have to deal with it. You have to focus on the big picture and we’ve turned the page here. I’m going to look at the banner and I’m going to smile. And then I’m going to go out and play football.”
The last time the Eagles had such pre-game hoopla was when Lincoln Financial Field opened in 2003 against Tampa Bay when the team trotted out Sylvester Stallone and the Rocky theme was played and the crowd went bonkers. Then the Eagles, in a rematch of the NFC Championship Game from the 2002 season, went out and played a lousy 60 minutes in a 17-0 loss. The Eagles started shakily that season before righting their ways and eventually playing into the NFC Championship Game, where they fell to Carolina.
A reminder here is that the season is still 16 games long and that the Eagles, win or lose, won’t be defined by one night.
“We’re playing a great football team and we’re going to need to be at our best,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “I don’t think guys are going to have a problem being ready to play. We’ve all been in big games and we know how to prepare physically and emotionally. It’s something we’ve talked about around here for a long time: What we did last year was phenomenal. It’s what you play this game for, to win championships. But that’s in the past. Our 2018 season starts against Atlanta and we have to be dialed in the right way.
“I know it’s going to be a special night for our fans and we want all of their energy. When the ball gets kicked off, we have to do our jobs. We have to be at our best to beat the Falcons.”