MINNEAPOLIS – Sure, a field goal would have put the Philadelphia Eagles ahead by two with a bit over two minutes left in Super Bowl LII. But there was no doubt in their minds what the Eagles needed if they wanted to actually win this game.

“I knew that we were going to have to score a touchdown in that situation,” head coach Doug Pederson said later. “A field goal wasn’t going to be good enough. Not against (Tom) Brady and the Patriots.”

Here was the situation: Brady and the Patriots had been unstoppable on offense all game. Every Patriots drive had ended in points. Brady had shown why he is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, setting a Super Bowl record with 505 passing yards. A field goal would be better than nothing, certainly, but sitting at third-and-7 at the New England 11-yard-line, that was not what Pederson and the Eagles wanted. The Eagles had been grinding for 13 plays and nearly seven minutes, and the drive had included one gutsy fourth-and-1 play call where quarterback Nick Foles slung one over the middle to tight end Zach Ertz, and Ertz dove for the first down. But this play was crucial: They needed a touchdown here. A field goal wouldn’t do it. 

“To get in a shootout against that guy on the other team is probably not ideal,” Ertz said. “For anyone. Ever.”

Foles was standing in shotgun when the ball was snapped. With three receivers split wide right, Ertz was alone on the left-hand side of the field. He jumped off the line and juked Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who had him in man coverage. Foles was looking his way when Ertz slanted across the middle, and Foles fired the ball toward him. McCourty stumbled. Ertz caught it at the 5-yard-line, took a couple steps and then dove over a sprawled out McCourty, holding the ball over the goal line.

That’s when his hands and the ball crashed against the ground. The ball popped up into the air, then back into Ertz’s hands. It seemed like a touchdown, and that’s what the referee in the end zone called it.

But anyone who has watched the NFL in recent years knows that the definition of a catch is blurry at best. It was one of the things commissioner Roger Goodell spoke about at length during his pre-Super Bowl news conference: That this offseason, the catch/no-catch rule needs to be simplified and made more effective.

But on Sunday night in Minneapolis, the catch rule was what the catch rule was: Confusing. And enough to drive players and coaches insane, not to mention fans who waited (and waited) as referees went to the sideline to determine where the Eagles had just scored six points or whether they’d have to kick a field goal. The play immediately called to mind the apparent game-winning touchdown against the Patriots in week 15 by the Pittsburgh SteelersJesse James – a touchdown that was reversed during replay.

“I didn’t even think there was anything to review,” Ertz said afterward, basking in the glow of the Eagles’ first Super Bowl victory. “I knew they had to after every touchdown, but I didn’t know there was a reason behind it, that it would be that close, that they had to go over there and spend what seemed like an eternity over there.”

As Ertz and his teammates waited on the sidelines, the catch played over and over on the big screen: His arms stretching over the goal line, his hands hitting the ground, the ball popping skyward. He conferred with his fellow tight end Trey Burton: “If they can overturn that, I don’t even know what’s a catch any more. I had three steps on the ground. I extended forward, my back leg dragged on the ground. The city of Philly would have been hot if they’d overturned that.”

There was no doubt in Ertz’s mind that was a touchdown. There wasn’t any doubt in the mind of longtime Eagles tight end Brent Celek, either. At least, not until he went over to badger a ref about it while the play was being reviewed. “I was telling the ref, ‘He had three feet down! So that’s a catch!’ ” Celek recalled after the game. “And the ref wasn’t telling me either way. I was like, ‘Come on, ref. You gotta tell me that. Three feet down is a catch!’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ “

Then Celek got worried.

This is one of the problems in today’s NFL: When it comes to plays like this, you just don’t know. Refs generally adjudicate the rule correctly, but the rule itself is convoluted. Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor thought the same thing: He was confident it seemed like a catch, but you never know. “If you call that back, that’s crazy,” he said. “(But) at the end of the day, it’s a weird rule.”

After what seemed like forever to Ertz, referee Gene Steratore got on the microphone to announce the call on the field was upheld: Touchdown Eagles. The Eagles were up 38-33 with 2:21 left. It still felt like too much time for Brady, and that he could perform a late-game miracle. But on the second play of the Patriots’ drive, the pocket collapsed on Brady, and Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham stripped the ball away. The Eagles kicked a field goal to put them up eight. A last-ditch Patriots drive ended on a failed Hail Mary, and the Eagles were Super Bowl champs, with Ertz having made the game-winning touchdown catch.

“He had to run a slant,” said Celek, the 11-year Eagles veteran who has mentored Ertz since the Eagles drafted Ertz in the second round in 2013. “He had to get physical on the route. He did it, got up and made the catch and dove over the defense. Ertz is top-two tight end in the NFL in my opinion. Ertz is the man, dude. He dominated tonight.”

Ertz had seven catches for 67 yards in his first Super Bowl, but the two most important came on that final drive: The fourth-and-1 play at midfield, then the third down touchdown. Afterward, as he sat before the cameras, Ertz knew those plays were something special – not just for his career and his team but for his city.

“The city of Philadelphia deserves this,” he said. “They’re longing for this for a long time.” He knows Philadelphia, though, and knows how much Eagles fans will celebrate what his touchdown catch sealed. “I hope not everything gets burned down.”


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