MINNEAPOLIS -- The themes of this NFL season could be told in snapshots.
Injured superstars watch from the sidelines. Next-generation coaches refashion crummy teams to contenders. Smothering defenses set the tone. Backup quarterbacks get their chance. Protests and the push for social change dominate the headlines.
The Philadelphia Eagles check all those boxes. In a sense, they are the perfect Super Bowl team -- and they have kept alive a surprising trend: They're the third consecutive NFC champion who finished .500 or worse the year before, following Atlanta last year and Carolina in 2015.
Let's unpack those themes for the Eagles, who on Sunday will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
Injured superstars: Players get hurt every year, but an inordinate number of elite ones sustained major injuries this season that cost them most or the rest of their seasons. Among those were Houston's J.J. Watt, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Seattle's Richard Sherman and Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants. For the Eagles, the biggest loss was quarterback Carson Wentz, the leading candidate for the NFL's most valuable player, whose knee injury in a Week 14 game against the Los Angeles Rams ended his season. Philadelphia already had lost nine-time Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters and playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks.
"It's just tough knowing that could be you," said Wentz, who is from neighboring North Dakota. "I had my sights set on this thing since I knew we weren't making the playoffs last year. I had my sights set on playing in Minneapolis. It's right down the road from home. Here we are. It just looks different for me."
Next-generation coaches: The toughest question of the season was, who should be coach of the year? A collection of new or relatively new leaders emerged to not only lift their teams this season but provide hope for years to come. From the Rams' Sean McVay, to Jacksonville's Doug Marrone, to Minnesota's Mike Zimmer, to late-surging San Francisco's Kyle Shanahan, to Philadelphia's Doug Pederson, the future is blindingly bright for these coaches. In six of the eight divisions, teams that finished third or fourth the year before made the playoffs this season. Not only did the Eagles go from worst (7-9) to first (13-3) in their division, they earned the NFC's No. 1 seed.
Smothering defenses: All over the NFL, defenses swarmed, stifled and squelched opponents. Jacksonville was "Sacksonville." Minnesota saw the rebirth of the Purple People Eaters. The Patriots started wobbly but were Plymouth Rock after the first month. The way they thrived under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips played a big role in the Rams' getting back to the playoffs. There were strong showings in Carolina and Arizona too. Defense was the backbone in Denver, and Pittsburgh led the league in sacks. But there would be nary a whisper of "Fly Eagles Fly" had Philadelphia not dropped the defensive hammer on opponents. The Eagles finished No. 1 against the run, and fourth overall.
Backup quarterbacks: The Super Bowl is in Minnesota, where fill-in quarterback Case Keenum turned in a season for the Vikings worthy of MVP consideration. But there were replacements all over the league, and none is more in the spotlight than Philadelphia's Nick Foles. He played well against Atlanta in the divisional playoff round and had a phenomenal game against Minnesota in the NFC championship game. Now, he's dueling the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history, the ageless Tom Brady.
A lightly experienced substitute quarterback against an established superstar?