What can we learn from the Philadelphia Eagles far from perfect win over the Falcons? That perfection isn’t necessary for this team to win.
From the moment the final gun sounded in the Los Angeles Coliseum last Saturday, the conversation for Philadelphia Eagles fans became ‘How do you beat the Atlanta Falcons with Nick Foles playing quarterback?’. While outliers on both sides of the discussion claimed there was either ‘no way to win’ or ‘nothing to worry about’, most seemed to agree that ‘as long as every other aspect of the team was flawless, the backup QB Foles would not need to be great to win’. No pressure … just be perfect.
From the opening drive, it was clear that such perfection was not on the menu. Foles targeted Torrey Smith on the first play from scrimmage, deep down the right sideline. The winds whirling around Lincoln Financial Field would have none of that and Foles’ throw waffled lifelessly, falling short of its target. The Birds caught a break when Falcons’ cornerback Brian Poole was called for a 42-yard Pass Interference penalty. On the next play, RB Jay Ajayi fumbled at the end of a 6-yard run. Atlanta parlayed that turnover into a 33-yard Matt Bryant field goal and a 3-0 lead.
The Eagles responded by marching from their own 25-yard-line to Atlanta’s 36 in five plays. But, LeGarrette Blount mishandled the exchange with Foles on the next play. Though the Eagles maintained possession, the drive’s momentum was stunted.
On their next drive, Ajayi got them rolling and a clever running play to Nelson Agholor gave them a 1st and goal. On 3rd down, Agholor was in motion when the ball was snapped. The third-year receiver collided with rookie RB Corey Clement as he reached for Foles handoff. The ball hit the ground … AGAIN. This time, Foles lunged toward it and the goal line, recovering it and being touched down clearly short of the end zone. A touchdown was signaled, then reversed. Blount scored on the ensuing play following a brilliant lead by TE Trey Burton, who had lined up as a fullback. Rookie kicker Jake Elliott clanked the PAT off of the left upright and the home underdogs had a 6-3 second quarter lead, more or less in spite of themselves.
The defense, still holding up its end of the bargain, forced another Matt Bosher punt. Returner Kenjon Barner backed away from the short kick waving his arms and, no doubt, shouting some version of ‘Poison, Poison’ to let his teammates know to stay away. Bryan Braman was locked up in a block as the ball careened wildly to the right and into his left buttock. Falcon LB LaRoy Reynolds alertly pounced on the live ball and set his team up on the Eagles’ 18.
First, the officials showed they were imperfect when Rodney McLeod expertly defended a first down pass at the goal line and was promptly called for Unnecessary Roughness. Then, Jalen Mills held Julio Jones, which set up a Matt Ryan TD pass that put the favored visitors up 10-6.
After the teams traded punts, the Eagles found themselves at their own 28, compliments of Braman’s penetration and deflection of Bosher’s effort. With 0:46 remaining and two timeouts in his back pocket, Coach Doug Pederson decided to play for a field goal rather than kneeling and running up the tunnel for warmth. The seven yards gained on a check down to Clement were almost all given back when Halapoulivaati Vaitai moved early on second down. With the clock running, Pederson opted to sacrifice one of his TO’s rather than lose ten seconds in a runoff. Foles then overthrew TE Zach Ertz badly into a flock of Falcon defenders. One of them, S Keanu Neal, jumped to make a play on the errant throw.
Instead of cradling the gift in his belly, Neal tucked his knees high and deflected the ball ten yards back upfield to WR Torrey Smith, who secured the catch and turned it into a 20-yard gain. Two plays later, Foles found Alshon Jeffery along the near sideline to set up a 53-yard FG by Elliott which sent the teams up the tunnel with Atlanta leading 10-9.
At this point, the Eagles had fumbled three times, muffed a punt, missed an extra point, tossed up a freebie that was not intercepted and been called for two defensive fouls in the Red Zone. With all that messiness in their wake, it was still just a one point game.
As the second half began, the defense stayed strong and Foles started to find his rhythm in a five-and-a-half minute drive in the final minutes of the 3rd quarter that resulted in a go-ahead 37-yard FG by Elliott.
Imperfection manifested itself again as Elliott gave Atlanta great starting field position with an out-of-bounds kickoff. McLeod sacked Ryan on the last play of the 3rd quarter, setting up a three-and-out that would give the Eagles a chance to bolster their lead.
That seemed unlikely after C Jason Kelce was late getting to his block on a 2nd-and-10 screen pass to Ajayi that went nowhere. Pederson boldly dialed up the same play on 3rd-and-long. This time, Kelce got to his block and G Stefen Wisniewski absolutely blasted two Falcon defenders, springing Ajayi for a 32-yard catch-and-run that took the ball across midfield. The drive continued and, when all was said and done, Foles and Friends had burned nearly eight minutes off the 4th quarter clock and were facing a 4th-and-1 at the Falcons’ 3. Pederson opted for another Elliott field goal and the 5-point lead it provided. Atlanta would have the last six minutes to find the six points they needed.
The Eagle defense seemed content to keep Atlanta’s weapons in front of them, allowing short gains. Brandon Graham made a shoestring tackle on RB Devonta Freeman for a loss that set up a desperate 4th down completion to Jones. Another completion to Jones put the ball on the Philadelphia 38 at the two-minute warning. Two plays later, it was at the 9-yard-line with 1:19 to play. It was clear that, if the Falcons were to find the end zone now, there would be little to no time remaining for the home team to answer.
The defense, which had not allowed a TD in the final two minutes of any game this season, would have to dig deep and make one more stop. They flexed and denied pass attempts by Ryan on 1st and 2nd down. On 3rd-and-goal, Ryan hooked up once more with Jones on a 7-yard slant that set up a 4th down at the 2-yard line. A replay seemed to show it was an incompletion. But, the catch was upheld. Facing their season’s end, needing the touchdown, Ryan & Co. went with the ol’ Sprint Right Option, the play that made Joe Montana and Dwight Clark immortal. Ryan would be looking for his favorite target, Jones (9 rec, 101 yds). Mills drew the defensive assignment, seemingly determined to not be manhandled by the bigger, stronger receiver. The two came together in the end zone and Jones found some uncooperative turf. As the star receiver stumbled to the ground, Mills tumbled onto him briefly. Ryan managed to buy a few seconds while Jones got back to his feet. But, the timing of the play was off and Ryan could only manage a back foot throw that sailed through the hands of a leaping Jones, whose left foot appeared to have landed out of bounds anyway. Again, Mills coverage wasn’t perfect. But, the play was made and the game was theirs to close out.
As they celebrated their 15-10 win, DE Chris Long and OT Lane Johnson donned German Shepard masks they had purchased earlier in the week for just such an occasion. The first home underdog No. 1 seed in NFL history were best in this show and it was time to bark about it.
So, it turns out they didn’t need to play a perfect game after all. They needed to make timely plays and deny their opponents when it mattered. That is what they did and what they will need to do next week.
The fact is, there is no ’85 Bears waiting to administer a savage beating to some unsuspecting team in these playoffs. As Sunday’s instant classic between New Orleans and Minnesota will attest, the teams in this NFC Playoff are closely matched and fiercely competitive. Sunday evening, the Birds will face a Vikings team bent on making history and going home to play in the Super Bowl. But, are they the juggernaut that won eight in a row and 11 of their last twelve games to win the NFC North or are they now the team that blew a 17-point lead at home and benefitted from one of the most stunning and unforeseen turns of fate in pro football history just to make it to this game? Case Keenum’s dream season has now been tainted by a nightmarish, game changing interception and their daunting defense may have taken some notable losses to injury.
It certainly won’t be easy. We know now, it doesn’t have to be perfect and this team, bolstered by the deafening cacophony created by their devoted fanatics, is confident in their ability to do whatever it takes to win.