Players, fans confident ‘underdog’ Eagles will fly higher than Falcons

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Philadelphia Eagles' fans huddle during the second half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Eagles fans huddle during the second half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys Dec. 31 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Despite a 13-and-3 record and being the No. 1 seed overall in the NFC, the loss of quarterback Carson Wentz has left the Eagles in a familiar spot: The Underdog.

Going into Saturday’s divisional playoff game against the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, the Eagles have been installed as underdogs — the first time a No. 1 seed has been an underdog in a divisional game.

“I think everybody perceives us as being the weakest [team], and that is fine,” Eagles offensive lineman Lane Johnson said following practice earlier this week. “I think that is good. I think if teams want to overlook us, that is good. We know what people are saying.”

Johnson’s attitude matches that of a number of Eagles fans, who despite the loss of Wentz and the team’s offensive struggles the last month, believe they can beat Atlanta and advance to the NFC championship game.

“When I tell you there is an Eagles Nation, there is an Eagles Nation,” said O.J. Spivey, who writes for the ESPN site The Undefeated. Spivey is a Philly native and lifelong Eagles fan.

“You saw earlier this year how they took over Los Angeles,” he said of the fans’ ability to travel well. “They take over other cities the same way. Charlotte became Philadelphia South.”

Jenna Rodriguez, who grew up in Trenton and has been an Eagles fan since she was a teenager, is one of those very vocal members of Eagles Nation. Rodriguez said she believes the Eagles will find a way to win Saturday — “I’m trying to think it into existence. You know, the vibes” — as she remains cautiously optimistic.

Growing up in a neighborhood that was split between Birds fans and New York Giants fans, she’s taken her fair amount of grief.

“I know some people like the Giants and, when they were winning, it was easy,” Rodriguez, 27, said. “It’s not fun to lose, but if you don’t fail, you never really appreciate winning.”

This season appeared to be the year that the worm turned.

While the Giants suffered through their worst season in 40 years — finishing with the NFL’s second-worst record at 3-13 — the Eagles were running roughshod through the league … until Wentz was injured Dec. 10 in Los Angeles as the team clinched the NFC East.

Rodriguez, having been let down by the Eagles many times before, found a humorous comparison for standing by the, at times, snakebitten Birds.

“It’s like a bad boyfriend,” she said. “But you’ve been with him so long that you don’t want to give up now. You just keep believing in him — one day he’s gonna change. That’s what it’s like.”

The underdog storyline, while nothing new to the Eagles or the city of Philadelphia, has still lit a fire under the Eagles — and their fans. Spivey said that’s part of the game.

“The oddsmakers who set the lines in Las Vegas, they pretty much know what they’re talking about,” Spivey said. “Then you have the talking heads, and they fall in line with that as well.”

Despite winning two of their last three games, the Eagles struggled with backup quarterback Nick Foles under center. Meanwhile Atlanta, who lost last year’s Super Bowl to the New England Patriots after blowing a 28-3 third-quarter lead, had a dominating win over the Los Angeles Rams last week.

Even with that, Spivey said, Eagles fans don’t need to panic.

“When you look at Nick Foles stepping in as a backup quarterback, most people believe when your backup quarterback is under center, you’re going to be done anyway, but I think the Eagles are unique,” he said. “They have guys with Super Bowl experience; they have talent just about at every position except at quarterback.

“It’s probably going to be ugly, but I do believe that the Eagles are a good enough team defensively, and they have enough on offense where they can squeak it out,” he said. “If this had been in Atlanta in their new [Mercedes Benz] Stadium, I would lean towards [the Falcons]. While Carson Wentz makes them great, they’re still a really good team without him.”

Whatever happens Saturday, fans like Rodriguez will continue to revel in the underdog legacy of the Eagles and Philadelphia. She sees it as a badge of honor of sorts.

“Fans of these other teams don’t go through as much hardship,” she said, her voice slowly rising, directing much of her passion toward Giants and Cowboys fans. “You’ve got nobody busting your balls. You always win and get the rings. You’re always celebrating.

“Throughout the years, I think because it’s been so up and down, it’s really made us thick-skinned,” she added. “It’s loyalty. We like that because it makes us different. We know we can handle the sh–.”

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