What is it about quarterback Nick Foles in the clutch? He does not flinch. He is confident, and that demeanor permeates the offense. As the Eagles dig in with their preparations for New Orleans on Sunday, it’s worth a look back at a key statistic from the 16-15 win in Chicago: Foles completed 8 of 11 (72.7 percent) attempts for 79 yards with one touchdown and a 122.9 passer rating on third and fourth downs. Over his last four games (since Week 15), Foles has gone 38 of 46 (82.6 percent) for 431 yards, five touchdowns, one interception, and a 132.9 passer rating on third and fourth downs.
“He’s probably as calm as I’ve ever seen,” head coach Doug Pederson said on Monday, prior to his day-after-game press conference. “Some people say that I’m calm, but inside I’m tore up, I’m nervous and getting ready to put the offense back out there for a game-winning drive, potentially. But he’s just so calm and he’s telling me, ‘Just keep dialing ‘em up and I’ll find a completion.’ That’s what you do. The guy has made some great plays, whether it’s on first down or third down or fourth down to win that game.
“I can remember early when we had him, when we drafted him (2012), there was always that anxiousness, there was that nervousness, there was that excitement, playing way too fast at times. I think over his career he’s just learned to calm things down. I think, having been around, and what he’s gone through in his life has really prepared him for situations like this, where, you know what, this is just a game. Life is more important. He attacks it that way and that’s what keeps him grounded and keeps him really calm in those moments.”
Another key, in addition to Foles’ demeanor, is the way Pederson prepares the offense for every conceivable game situation. He makes sure the Eagles rehearse during the week of practice, and while the tempo may not be at game speed, Pederson talks through the situation to make sure everyone is on the same page.
“This is what pays off at this time of the year,” Pederson said. “We’ve executed those situations in practice so that we’re ready in the games.”
It also helps that the Eagles are scoring in the first quarter of games in the last four weeks – three points against Los Angeles, seven against Houston, and field goals against both Washington and Chicago. The offense is gaining some rhythm early, and it’s paying off late.
And then, of course, they’re killing it on third and fourth downs.
“I go back to (offensive coordinator) Mike Groh and how he and the staff prepare during the week and puts these game plans together, our third-down menu, and stuff like that,” Pederson said. “And of course we have to teach it to the players. We have to go practice that during the week. And then the quarterbacks, their preparation and study, along with everybody else. Their understanding of the situation, what we’re going to see. I think it’s our job as coaches to make sure that we’re teaching those situations. We’re not just throwing plays out and saying, ‘Hey, go run these plays.’ We have to show them the ‘whys' and here are the coverages that they will see and here are the blitzes that our O-line and backs are going to see. We walk our guys through it. We practice these things.
“And so for Nick, it’s no different. He knows where everybody is going to be and our guys are executing well on third down.”
The goal is to stay ahead of the chains, and the Eagles have done a good job of that in the last month or so. But there are times when they’re in a third-and-long situation and the offense is still moving the chains. Sustaining drives is something the Eagles were not doing on a consistent basis for much of the season.
Now the Eagles are on a roll, spreading the ball around, staying as balanced as possible and winning on third and fourth downs.
“This week, we have to play a 60-minute game to win,” Pederson said. “That means all three phases. We have to make plays. We know what happened the first time we played New Orleans. The guys know we didn’t play well. That was the game that changed our path this season. This is another team that is opportunistic. We can’t turn the ball over. We were fortunate (in Chicago) that we won even with the two turnovers. The offense has to be efficient. We have to stay on the field on third down, which means we have to stay ahead of the chains on first and second downs.”
It all ties together, and then it all circles back to Foles and his calm, and his confidence, and his crisp delivery on the field. Third down is the money down in the NFL, and Foles is coming up big, bigger, and biggest in the clutch. The Eagles, alive and looking ahead to New Orleans, are in the mix in the NFC’s four-team playoff picture.