“We know defense wins championships. You say it all the time. You hear it. It’s cliché but it’s true, especially where we are now at home,” Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins said.
By Sam Bush
A rigid defensive effort helped the underdog Eagles (14-3) advance to the NFC championship game for the sixth time since 2001. They’ll host the Vikings (14-3) next Sunday. Minnesota advanced with a thrilling 29-24 win over New Orleans.
“We don’t even care,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said about a preferred opponent. “Obviously, we’ll see a good game and get ready to prepare for whoever we’re going to play next.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s unit was No. 1 against the run, 17th against the pass and fourth in points allowed.
They held the Falcons to 281 yards, no points in the second half and Atlanta’s only touchdown drive came after a fumbled punt at the Eagles 18.
“We don’t point fingers,” defensive end Brandon Graham (above) said. “Just stay the task and keep playing your technique. Keep playing with effort. The second half, we went out there and did that. Nobody gave us a shot. We have another 60 minutes next week. I’m happy with this team because we are a great team. We stay together even through adversity.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson showed his confidence in the defense when he chose to have Jake Elliott kick a 21-yard field goal instead of going for fourth-and-1 at the Falcons 3 with a 12-10 lead and 6:05 remaining.
The defense had forced two three-and-outs and held Atlanta to only 49 yards in the second half. But Ryan led the Falcons on a long drive, converting a fourth-and-6 along the way. Atlanta had a first down at the Eagles 9 with 1:19 left.
Ryan threw incomplete to Jones and T.J. Ward. After a 7-yard pass to Jones to the 2, the season came down to one play.
Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian inexplicably called a rollout, taking half the field away for Ryan.
The defense read the play when they saw the formation, pressured Ryan and forced him to throw it up to Jones in the corner of the end zone. Jalen Mills had tight coverage and the ball sailed over Jones’ hands.
“We probably had three guys calling out the play on that one just based on our preparation, our study,” Jenkins said.
Jones had nine catches for 101 yards, but Mills and Ronald Darby kept him out of the end zone.
“The whole motto and the slogan was just ‘do your job,'” Mills said. “Nobody has to go out there and be superman. Know what you have to do for one, then go out there and execute.”
The defense did its part. The defense will have to do it again next week because the offense isn’t going to win a shootout.
“It was on us and we wouldn’t want it any other way,” Bradham said. “That’s how you feel when you’re on (defense) and you feel like we lead this team. We set the tone for this team and we set the pace for this team. That’s how we feel. We feel like all the energy and everything comes through us and everybody feeds off of it.”