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Nick Foles heads season-saving win for Eagles in familiar role

LOS ANGELES -- The football sat just past midfield, its nose another yard shy of the first-down marker, and Nick Foles turned to the Philadelphia Eagles' sideline for guidance. Five minutes into the second quarter of a vital Sunday Night Football showdown at the L.A. Coliseum, Philly trailed 7-6 and faced a fourth-and-1 -- and Foles, pressed into service in this stadium for the second consecutive December, had a pretty good idea what head coach Doug Pederson would decide.

As Foles would say later: "Doug's gonna go for it. He has faith in us, and we feed off that. That's the mindset that drove us last year. We welcome it."

For the legions of Eagles fans waiting for the defending Super Bowl champions to recapture their magic -- including a healthy share of the 74,210 attendees Sunday night -- this shaped up as a fate-shifting moment. Three plays after Philly rookie safety Avonte Maddox had intercepted a Jared Goff sideline throw, a team on the brink of playoff elimination was going for broke.

And then the narrative went to hell: Foles took a snap, handed the ball to Josh Adams and watched the rookie halfback get stuffed for no gain.

At the time, it looked like the type of Here We Go Again blunder that has haunted the Eagles throughout this underwhelming campaign. Yet Pederson, even as he watched the Rams drive for a field goal, wasn't second-guessing his call.

Though Pederson, admittedly, has been hard on himself over the past several months, Sunday night felt different, even before it was apparent that the Eagles were sending a message to the football world: Our margin for error may be completely gone, but we're not dead yet.

"I wasn't beating myself up at all after that (fourth-down) call," Pederson said shortly before boarding the team bus outside the Coliseum, more than an hour after the Eagles had survived Goff's last-second end-zone pass to clinch a 30-23 victory. "It was the right decision, and it's the way we roll. Yes, it failed -- but that doesn't make it the wrong decision."

It would be a stretch to say that Pederson's unsuccessful gamble galvanized his players and sparked their most impressive victory since, you know, that Super one in Minneapolis last February. That said, after a trying 13 games in which the Eagles seemed shockingly removed from their storybook triumph, something was clearly in the air Sunday night, and their collective ability to connect with last year's audacious achievement played a role.

With franchise quarterback Carson Wentz sidelined by a fracture in his back, Foles sprang into action -- just as he had a year and six days earlier at the Coliseum, when Wentz suffered a season-ending knee injury -- and displayed an almost incongruous command of the moment.

As with last season, the rest of the Eagles rallied around their baller backup. Receiver Alshon Jeffery caught eight passes for 160 yards, while three Philly running backs (Adams, Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles) combined to gain 106 yards on 28 carries. Center Jason Kelce of victory-parade legend and his fellow offensive linemen held off the great Aaron Donald and friends, keeping Foles clean in a 24-for-31, 270-yard, sack-free effort.

Meanwhile, the Eagles' pass rushers harassed Goff all night, disrupting his rhythm, intercepting him twice and holding him without a touchdown pass in 54 attempts. Special teams also came up huge, as safety Deiondre' Hall recovered a fumble by Rams punt returner JoJo Natson with 2:51 remaining, which ultimately made L.A.'s last-gasp comeback drive a lot more hectic.

When it was over, the Eagles (7-7) had not only kept their playoff hopes alive in advance of Sunday's home clash with the AFC South-leading Houston Texans (10-4), but they had also reclaimed some of their missing mojo, while robbing the suddenly reeling Rams (11-3) of theirs.

"This is us," veteran defensive end Chris Long declared afterward. "This is the way we look when we're playing well, and playing together. We're peaking a little late; we would've liked to have done this a few weeks ago. But it's still great to see."

It was only fitting that the Eagles' resurgence, be it temporary or otherwise, was fueled by Foles' first start since Week 2, when Wentz still hadn't been cleared to return from his knee injury. Though Foles was far from his Super Bowl best (or, for that matter, his Championship Sunday best) in September, he stepped up against the Rams as though he was made for the moment -- which, at this point, it's reasonable to conclude that he is.

As outstanding as Wentz was in 2017 before tearing his ACL and LCL at the Coliseum, he struggled to regain his form this season and seemed to be pressing at times. On Sunday, Foles played with the breezy self-assurance of a quarterback who'd stared down Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the biggest game of his life, and emerged victorious.

"I don't know what it was tonight, but we played together," Foles said as he headed up the tunnel outside of the Coliseum locker rooms -- the last Eagles player to do so. "All sides of the ball leaned on one another, and that was great. If you think about what made us special last year, it was that we leaned on one another and picked each other up when we had to. We talked about that this week."

Whereas Foles was the Super Bowl LII MVP, Pederson -- who doubles as the Eagles' offensive play-caller -- was dubbed Da Real MVP by many of his admiring colleagues in coaching and personnel circles.

This year, however, Pederson's shine has become somewhat muted, much like that of his players. Some have suggested that he's missing the collaborative energy of his former offensive coordinator, Frank Reich, who has surprisingly guided the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) into playoff contention as a rookie head coach. Whatever the legitimacy of that theory, Pederson's play-calling was on point against the Rams, which was something abundantly apparent by the time the Eagles took a 30-13 lead on Smallwood's four-yard touchdown run with 1:34 left in the third quarter.

"The difference tonight, I thought, was the commitment to the run game, and just giving Nick throws that he can manage," Pederson said. "We kind of went back to our core this week. When you get in a situation where it's win-or-else, sometimes you simplify things and just focus on what you do best."

The Eagles seemed to be in complete control of the game until the second play of the fourth quarter, when Foles made his only mistake, sailing a pass for tight end Zach Ertz into the arms of cornerback Aqib Talib, who returned the interception 30 yards to the Rams' 35.

The Rams scored 10 points on their ensuing two drives to close to within a touchdown with 4:10 remaining, but after fielding a Philly punt, Natson tried to shift the football from one hand to another, and JoJo quickly became synonymous with NoNo. The ball hit the turf at a spot hauntingly close to the location of the infamous Ty Montgomery fumble seven weeks earlier, and it looked like the Eagles could close out the game then and there.

However, three Adams runs netted a total of 1 yard, setting up a fourth-and-9 from the L.A. 35 with 1:13 remaining. Pederson could have punted and tried to pin the Rams deep in their own territory, which would have been the risk-averse approach; instead, he stayed aggressive, sending kicker Jake Elliott onto the field to attempt a 53-yard field goal.

Elliott's kick was wide right, giving the Rams the ball at their own 43 -- and, potentially, setting up Pederson for a slew of second-guessing. As with his failed fourth-and-1 call in the second quarter, he didn't give the move a second thought.

"No, no," he said. "I just wanted the points. It was well within his range. I wanted to go up 10."

Elliott's miss put more pressure on the Eagles' defenders to preserve the victory -- not that they were complaining.

"I think decisions like that just motivate us as a team," said Fletcher Cox, Philly's star defensive tackle. "We know how aggressive our coach is, and we stand behind him 100 percent. We've just got to keep fighting, keep scratching and see if we can prove the doubters wrong -- again."

The Rams got as close as the 18-yard-line with four seconds to go but missed on their one shot to the end zone, dropping their second consecutive game after an 11-1 start.

"It was definitely a statement win for us," said Philadelphia defensive end Michael Bennett. "Hopefully we can ride this wave and maybe get some help and get in ... and make some noise."

The Eagles, who have remaining games against Houston and Washington, almost certainly won't catch the Cowboys (8-6) for the NFC East title -- Dallas swept the season series with an overtime victory over Philly the previous Sunday and thus owns a tiebreaker. The Eagles could sneak in as a wild-card team if the Vikings (7-6-1) and Panthers (6-7 going into Monday night's game against the New Orleans Saints) stumble.

As he pondered the possibilities after Sunday's game, Pederson acknowledged that his third season as an NFL head coach has been humbling at times.

"I've been real hard on myself all year," he said. "I feel like I could've helped our team in some of these games -- a better play-call here, a better decision there -- and maybe my approach to some of this could have been different. I'll take a long look at those things after the year is over, and try to get better. But right now, I'm just trying to win two games and see where it takes us."

As the football world was resoundingly reminded on Sunday night, the 2018 Eagles -- like last year's team -- will go as far as their backup quarterback takes them. Does Foles have another magical run in him?

Shortly before boarding the bus outside the stadium, Foles smiled at the question and politely declined to overreach.

"I'm gonna stay in the moment," he said.

In case you'd forgotten, he's pretty good at that.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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