By Steve Kelly
As often happens, yesterday’s Eagles 15-10 victory over the Falcons at the Linc was a study in expectations.
The experts thought the Falcons’ momentum would overtake the stalled Eagles and go on to the NFC title game next Sunday.
But then they played the game.
Not on paper.
On the field.
It wasn’t Nick Foles’ game to win or lose. It was left to the Eagles’ defense to save the season as Matt Ryan, last season’s MVP, needed to make just one more good throw.
Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones jogged to the right side of the Falcons’ formation. At that point, Jalen Mills, the Eagles’ second-year cornerback, braced himself for action.
“I told myself, I know where the ball is going,” Mills recalled.
Atlanta called for a sprint pass with Ryan rolling to his right, looking for Jones in the corner of the end zone. From the start, the play seemed doomed.
Mills jammed Jones at the line, disrupting the timing. Jones slipped as he gathered himself, which left Ryan to pull up. There was no other option. Jones was hemmed along the sideline, with Mills covering him from the front side. Ryan lofted a high throw, trying to allow Jones a chance for a miracle play. The football sailed through Jones’ hands, and that was that.
The Eagles — without Carson Wentz, the star quarterback who was in the midst of an MVP season, Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking running back-returner Darren Sproles and linebacker Jordan Hicks — are one win away from the Super Bowl.
It goes into the books as a 15-10 victory that eliminated Atlanta, defending NFC champs. But it was just as much of a gut-check for a team that earned the a No. 1 seed but was still considered an underdog on its own turf amid the myriad injuries. It was a moment to exhale for the rabid, faithful and nervous Philly fans who have grown accustomed to postseason heartbreak.
It was also pure survival.
“I was just walking around, thinking, ‘This is the season right here. One play. You either make it or you don’t,’ ” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins reflected. “I don’t think anybody batted an eye.”
For all the talk about the odds in the days leading up to this divisional playoff, it was apparent at crunch time that the Eagles’ defense was a solid unit to bank on when it mattered most.
“We’ve been in situations like that all year, where the defense has to go out and win the game,” said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. “Nobody panicked.”
Yet as good as the Birds’ defense was in the clutch, the pivotal sequence also underscored the trouble that the Falcons have had for much of the season when trying to cash in on scoring opportunities.
In transitioning to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, they lost their magic touch in the red zone, scoring TDs on just 50% of their drives there (27 of 54) this season. And the reasons ran the gamut, from Ryan’s inefficiency to Jones’ lack of scoring to inconsistency with the running game near the goal line. That the problem resurfaced with the season hanging by a thread will fuel much criticism and speculation as the team tries to come to grips with another deflating postseason loss, nearly a year since it was on the wrong end of the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.
On Saturday, the Falcons had three trips to the red zone and managed a touchdown, a field goal and one fourth-down disaster.
“We’re going to assess the whole thing and look at it,” said Atlanta coach Dan Quinn. “Were there plays that knocked us out? Could we have done better in the run game down there? Those are certainly topics we are going to look long and deep into.”
Sarkisian’s play calling surely is open to second guessing given the Falcons were shut out after halftime. Although Quinn talked of giving his best player, Jones, the chance to win the game on their final offensive play, the strategy was questionable when considering that a sprint pass in that tight of an area cut off more than half the field, leaving Ryan with no other options.
Contrast that with clutch calls from Eagles coach Doug Pederson.
A 14-play drive in the fourth quarter, that ended with a 21-yard field goal, was jump-started by a 32-yard screen from Foles to Ajayi, with Pederson coming right back to a play that was limited to a minimal gain on the previous snap. In the second quarter, Pederson called a deft counter-sweep by receiver Nelson Agholor that gained 21 yards and set up LeGarrette Blount’s 1-yard TD.
Pederson pushed the right buttons at the right times.
“We’re one step closer,” Jenkins said. “We’re not done yet. But it’s a lot different feeling then having to go home.”