Jalen Hurts of the Eagles went from underdog to NFC champion. He has the cigar to prove it.

Jalen Hurts, matching a lavender jacket with lavender pants, sat alone Sunday night by his locker in the corner of the Eagles’ locker room, smoking a cigar. His work — a year after his season ended in criticism and uncertainty — was done. The Eagles are the NFC champions. And Hearts had the smoke to prove it.

He had arrived in Philadelphia as a curiosity, a backup quarterback selected in the second round who was first used as a utility player. He even said after Sunday’s 31-7 win over the 49ers that “they probably didn’t even want to draft me here.”

Less than three years later, he is the fourth player to quarterback the Eagles to the Super Bowl. He completed 15 of his 25 passes, rushed for a clinching score in the final minute of the third quarter and did not record a turnover.

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Hurts’ banner season — he was the MVP favorite before a shoulder injury sidelined him for two of the final three regular-season games — will end in the Super Bowl. That might have seemed high a year ago when the Hurts and Eagles were easily swept in the first round by Tampa Bay. What a difference a year made.

“It was a big surprise to a lot of people,” Hurts said when asked to clarify his comments about people not wanting to draft him. “But my beloved [Bible] verse—I went through a lot in college and it kind of stuck with me—is John 13:7. “You may not know now, but you will later. We hope people understand.”

Hurts lost his starting job at Alabama at halftime of the 2018 national championship game and spent a year as a backup before transferring to Oklahoma. Pundits were skeptical that he had the arm and pocket presence of an NFL quarterback. He’s done his best to silence that this season.

“I have a lot of respect for guys who fight,” Lane Johnson said. “That’s what football is about. It’s about fighting and facing adversity and getting through it.”

Hearts have completed 58% of their passes in two playoff wins, rushing for a score in each shutout. He’s played this postseason with a sore shoulder, but he didn’t seem limited by it Sunday, nor did he shy away from contact when rushing the ball.

He carried the Eagles through the first 14 weeks of the season and proved to be the type of QB — a guy who makes plays without making mistakes — who wins the postseason. The QBs the Eagles faced in the playoffs — Daniel Jones of the Giants and Brock Purdy and Josh Johnson of the 49ers — combined for three shifts. The difference in QB play is huge.

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“I know I’ve been through a lot personally, but I don’t want to take away from the direction of how good this team is at playing together and being together and challenging each other,” Hurts said. “When we went through painful times and some difficult times, we always found a way to get through them. You want to be in a situation like this, and we have a chance to come out and win it all, so we want to prepare to do that.

The game looked tight for just a few minutes after Christian McCaffrey tied the score at 7 by leaping and weaving his way through a pack of Eagles defenders. Hurts responded by orchestrating a 14-play drive that lasted nearly seven minutes and ended with a Miles Sanders TD run. The route went.

“We found a way to drive it,” Hurts said. “It looked different and that was the thing with this whole team and this whole offense this year. We go out there and throw a lot. We get out there and run a lot. We come in there and we’re just kind of efficient.”

How important is Hurts to the Eagles? They brought in Anita Baker—the Grammy-winning soul singer Hurts often cites as one of her favorite artists—to sing the national anthem. They could soon make up for that affection with a contract extension. The questions that hovered around Hurts last January seemed to dissipate like a cloud of smoke

“All I know and this is a fact, he’s about to get paid,” Jordan Mailata said. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Pay the man.

The man who would pay for that extension — Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie — called Hurts “a great young leader” and a “great quarterback.”

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“When we drafted him, that was the advantage we were counting on,” Lurie said. “We thought he had a huge upside. It takes a few years. Someone who is as dedicated as Jalen and such a great teammate, he will inevitably maximize everything he has. That’s what he did.

Hearts’ development this season to be considered a franchise QB is often attributed to a tireless work ethic, something Mailata sees every night at the team’s practice facility.

“Sometimes I stay in just to recover and he stays in to watch film with the coach,” Mailata said. “I joke and say, ‘I’m going to try to beat you, man. I will stay here the longest. He goes, “Yeah, but you’re not doing anything.” I was like, “Shit.” We come in at 7:30, finish at 5:30, and he’s still there watching a movie until 7:30. I’ll try to find it.

It didn’t take long on Sunday before the stage was built on the field after the clock struck zero. Hurts soon stood on top, waiting to hold the NFC championship trophy as the field was strewn with confetti. He took off his jersey and epaulettes, replacing them with a championship cap and jersey.

Once unsteady, Hurts held a microphone and led the raucous crowd in the team’s fight song. The Eagles, thanks to a QB who silenced the critics, were headed to the Super Bowl again. The only thing you had to do was light one.

“It’s no time to think,” Hurts said. “It’s really hard for me to do. I try to enjoy the moment, but my joy comes from winning. I know the work is not done. I never knew how far we would go, but I never said it couldn’t be done.

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