Torrey Smith was home early Sunday evening, rolling around on the floor with his 3-year-old son, T.J., when he watched a football miracle happen on TV. It made him remember a smaller one.
The game on his television was the one everyone was watching, Vikings-Saints in the NFC divisional round, the winner to face the Eagles this Sunday with a shot at the Super Bowl in the balance. With the Saints leading by a point and 10 seconds left on the clock, with the Vikings on their own 39-yard line and out of timeouts, Smith, like everyone else, thought the game was over. Then Case Keenum threw that long, deep sideline pass to Stefon Diggs, and Saints safety Marcus Williams lowered his head to hit Diggs but somehow missed him completely, and as Diggs sprinted into the end zone, Smith thought back to a divisional-round game he'd played in five years earlier.
This was Jan. 12, 2013, and Smith had done more than play in the game. He had caught two touchdown passes in the first half for the Baltimore Ravens. But now the Ravens were facing third down and 3 from their own 30-yard line with 41 seconds left in regulation, and they were trailing the Denver Broncos by seven points. And Joe Flacco dropped back, stepped up, and threw the football just about as far as he could, certainly farther than Broncos safety Rahim Moore thought he could. Moore misjudged the flight of the ball, and the pass sailed over his head into the arms of Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard game-tying touchdown.
"We knew we needed a drive," Smith, who caught 33 passes this season for the Eagles, was saying at his locker Wednesday. "We knew they were going to play soft. We had to convert to keep it moving. That defense was stout. We had hit some big plays earlier. But we were having to work for everything, so to have a play like that, I say it all the time: One man's mistake is the next man's glory. [Moore] literally was backpedaling and off-balance because the ball was a little high. It's the same as with [Williams] the other day. He was in great position. He just kind of went for the big shot and ducked his head. If he had just squared up and caught him, that's game over. But he went for it, and it was a mistake."
The Ravens won the game in overtime, 38-35. One week later, they beat the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. Two weeks after that, they won the Super Bowl. It's not difficult to see the potential parallel here. Here in Philadelphia, we're wrapped up in the Eagles-as-underdogs narrative, with Nick Foles at quarterback, with the chips on the players' and fans' shoulders and the masks on their faces. And the hope has to be that final play was, for the Vikings, the equivalent of a balloon popping, and that the Eagles will face a flat football team Sunday in the NFC championship game. But in Minnesota, they're celebrating one of the most stunning and improbable victories in NFL playoff history, and they banking that the magic of Keenum-to-Diggs has a half-life of at least a week, and the Vikings are the ones believing anything is possible.
So which is it? When a team pulls off an incredible win, what's more likely to follow? A carryover or a hangover?
"No, they're locked in on this," Smith said. "They know what's on the line. What we want, they want. They're home right now, trying to figure out the best game plan for us and how to come in here and win and play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. They're not distracted at all by that play. That's just how they got there.
"Trust me, those coaches are fired up. Those players are fired up. And they know what's on the line. They're one football game away, and that's what they've been told, and that's the reality of it. The media's going to talk about that play as one of the greatest plays we'll see, but they're going to be focused on the game plan – and on us."
Smith thinks of that 2012-13 season often, and not just because of his Super Bowl ring. His younger brother Tevin died in a motorcycle accident in the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012. The Ravens had a game that night against the Patriots, and Smith decided to play. He caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. The notion that there's such a thing as "a team of destiny" rings hollow to him; it's just a phrase that people toss around after the fact. "We had adversity after adversity," he said. "I mean, I lost my brother before a game, and it was just crazy."
After a while, those Ravens felt like they could overcome anything. They weren't destined to do it because of adversity or tragedy. There was nothing magical or miraculous about it. It was merely the confidence that pervades any team still playing at this time of year, and when two of those teams meet, one has to win.