In their four losses this season, games that were decided by an average of five points, the Eagles had the ball in the fourth quarter each time with the opportunity to put together a drive that would either assure a victory or provide one. If you have studied the season, or just the words "four losses" in the previous sentence, then you know how those opportunities turned out.
Sunday against the Falcons, however, in a game that probably kept alive their playoff hopes, the Eagles took the ball with just over 10 minutes remaining, 76 yards from the end zone and down two points. Nine snaps later, they had the lead and the game. They didn't just travel the distance from their own 24-yard line, but all the way from Detroit, with intermediate stops in Landover, Arlington and East Rutherford. Whatever Doug Pederson learned from the past failures about his team and his options combined to produce the drive that beat the Falcons.
The fourth-quarter drive was a distillation of what had worked all game for the Eagles, and comprises what Pederson calls "a blueprint" for how his offense will need to operate to win. It involves the short, low-risk passes of the classic West Coast offense, a running game that is more than just an occasional change-up, and solid blocking from a line that appears to be holding together. It's not an exciting mix - Carson Wentz didn't complete a pass that went for more than 20 yards - but losing isn't very exciting, either.
"The biggest thing coming out of this game as opposed to some of those other games is we did a little better on first and second down this game than we did in previous games where we kept ourselves in third and long," Pederson said. "We had situations that were at least manageable in terms of down and distance and that gave us an opportunity to stay on the field."
It was a combo platter of issues that got in their way during the losses. In the Detroit game, a bad holding penalty made them settle for a field goal instead of a probable touchdown, and then a Ryan Mathews fumble followed by an ill-considered interception from Wentz closed the door on that game. Against the Redskins, the Eagles trailed by seven and were driving late when the line crumbled and Wentz was sacked twice. The Cowboys game was lost several times, but the offense had the ball with the score tied and three minutes left when Jordan Matthews lost 2 yards on a second-and-2 completion that cost the drive its momentum. There were two failed fourth-quarter drives against the Giants, the second of which began at the New York 34-yard line following a Jordan Hicks interception and proceeded to a first down at the 17-yard line before dying out.
Sunday's result doesn't mean the Eagles are going to be great at closing games. Falling behind isn't a good recipe for them because it strips away the run game to an extent. It also doesn't mean Pederson's late-game decisions are going to be perfect. But it does mean that for one afternoon, the thing that had been killing them, keeping a vital fourth-quarter drive alive, didn't happen this time.
The linchpin of the drive was a second and 10 from the Atlanta 45-yard line in which Pederson went against type and called a running play out of the shotgun. Darren Sproles took the handoff and moved quickly to the outside, getting around the end as Jason Peters locked up Dwight Freeney and gaining 8 yards as Jason Kelce got ahead of him to delay linebacker De'Vondre Campbell for Sproles.
One short pass later, it was another first down, and with the help of a pass-interference call in the end zone, the drive ended on a Mathews run around the right end, with Kelce and Brandon Brooks pulling to clear the path.
"Obviously, the run to Sproles was huge, but it was just the offensive line taking control of the line of scrimmage that was a big benefit," Pederson said. "We didn't have to necessarily throw the ball as much. Our running game had been taking over and we wanted to continue that late in the game."
The Sproles run and the Mathews touchdown were the only running plays on the drive, however. The rest were passes to Matthews, Zach Ertz or Sproles, each of whom enjoyed man-to-man coverage with favorable matchups. The threat of the run is what kept Atlanta's defense tight to the line of scrimmage, though. That's "the blueprint" Pederson will attempt to replicate the rest of the season.
What remains to be seen is whether the Atlanta result was an outlier, that one day in which the running game didn't dissolve in a game up for grabs, or in which turnovers didn't put the team in a hole too deep to escape.
Maybe, but it doesn't matter this week. For once, the fourth-quarter drive got all the way home and everyone who said this offense couldn't do it was wrong. Now let's see if they can do it again.