PHILADELPHIA >> Each time Jalen Mills sees the confetti-strewn photos of himself seated with right index finger raised, the memories slap him in the face like one of those waves you don’t quite see.
Jalen Mills, Eagles, Super Bowl LII champions.
Who would have believed it?
“Seventh-round pick, I’m in the Super Bowl, winning the Super Bowl and actively contributing to the team,” Mills said of the silent prayer he shared with his creator. “It was an amazing journey.”
It was Mills who ran stride for stride with Rob Gronkowski, the 6-6, 265-pound tight end who had gashed the Eagles, on the final play of the victory over the New England Patriots. Mills made sure Tom Brady’s Hail Mary pass didn’t quite get there. He celebrated the 41-33 triumph with fans.
And it was Mills who made the play in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs that beat the Atlanta Falcons, who the Eagles oppose in the season opener Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field (8:20, Channel 10, WIP 94.1-FM). On that occasion, he muscled Julio Jones (6-3, 220) out of his comfort zone.
“It was knowing that on the last play of the game they were going to him,” Mills recalled. “Big receiver. A lot of times you see where he just bodies guys up and goes and catches the ball. So, I knew I had to play big. Me and him collided, he ended up sliding on the ground. (Brandon Graham) and the line got great pressure and it was a late throw. I just played technique on the jump ball. It went over the top.”
Without Mills trading bumps with Jones on that play, there would have been no MVP opportunity for Nick Foles, who gets the start at quarterback for the Eagles, as Carson Wentz is out due to his knee rehab.
Without Mills, the Eagles’ rock at cornerback the past two seasons, there’s no victory parade, no gawdy Super Bowl title rings, no book deals for Foles and head coach Doug Pederson, and no iconic Philly-Philly scoring play, much less the sculpture of Foles and Pederson that sits in Headhouse Plaza.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has a pretty good sense of humor judging by the way he drew laughs earlier in the week by announcing Matt Ryan would be his starting quarterback. It was an attempt to divert attention away from Pederson, who was so irked that everybody knew who his starter would be that he refused to announce it.
But Quinn can find nothing to smile about when he watches video of Ryan’s high heater to Jones in the end zone. If the ball doesn’t skid off the hands of Jones, the Falcons probably would have moved on. Instead they lost, 15-10.
“I saw it enough, like everybody did to realize when your opportunities come you’ve got to nail them,” Quinn said on a conference call. “Certainly, when you don’t there are consequences for it. Like most games, it usually doesn’t come down to one play. In that one we certainly had other shots at the end zone as well. But I never get disappointed when we’ve got Matt throwing to Julio. Those are usually good endings. In that one it wasn’t but at the end of it I’ve got to give credit to (the Eagles), too. Playing defense, playing, standing up down there, those are good competitive battles and that’s kind of what you should expect from two good teams.”
Quinn said the Falcons have prepared for the Eagles’ offense, not so much the quarterback. What they also should have done is get ready for Mills.
Mills posted an interesting photo on his Twitter account after getting his SB championship ring. Just say he wasn’t wearing the jewelry on his ring finger.
To the people who want to see if Mills and the Eagles can do it again, the veteran defender stops smiling.
“That’s not the focus,” Mills said. “Right now the focus is every day, get better and everything will take care of itself. That’s how we got to the Super Bowl. That’s how we won the Super Bowl. It was an everyday mission.”
For the Eagles, it began in the playoffs, with Mills.
In addition to Wentz, the Eagles will scratch wide receivers Alshon Jeffery (shoulder) and Mack Hollins (groin).
The Falcons listed guard Ben Garland (calf), and cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver (ankle) and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (shoulder) as out for the contest.