The Eagles needed one more stop. The defense invited the burden all week, yearning to carry the underdog label. With the Atlanta Falcons 2 yards from the end zone on a fourth down with 65 seconds remaining in the Eagles’ 15-10 win on Saturday, it was the do-or-die moment they desired.
Once the Falcons aligned in their formation, the Eagles defenders recognized the play. The safeties called it out to both sides, expecting Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to roll to his right and target wide receiver Julio Jones. Nigel Bradham closed on the Exton native, forcing Ryan to lob a pass. Jones had the size on Jalen Mills, but the pass sailed high with Mills impeding Jones’ effort.
“That’s what you want as a defender, that’s what you dream of,” Mills said. “A fourth-down stop on the goal line with the time running down? You can’t ask for anything else.”
The sideline erupted in pandemonium, but it was nothing compared with the locker room. Players donned dog masks. They wanted anyone who doubted them to know they were listening and to understand they’re not finished. They hollered and celebrated and danced – even owner Jeffrey Lurie showed his rhythm.
The Eagles were the first No. 1 seed to be underdogs in the divisional round, and what they perceived as a lack of respect became a rallying cry within the NovaCare Complex during the week. They fostered an us-against-the-world mentality. But they were confident in their game plan even without star quarterback Carson Wentz, and coach Doug Pederson pushed the right buttons for the last two weeks – from the message to the team to the intensity of the practices to the decisions Saturday.
“When did Carson go down? Since that point, no one’s given us a chance,” Pederson said. “And I understand Carson’s a great player. But every week, our guys have been hearing the same thing, how our guys are not good enough. We’re 13-3, we have the best record in football, home-field advantage throughout. The guys are going to motivate themselves just based on what they’ve heard the past month of football. It really doesn’t matter what [outsiders] talk about, because that locker room in there, I’ll go to bat for every one of those guys and I’ll go to war with every one of those guys in the dressing room.”
The Eagles advanced to the NFC championship game for the first time since January 2009. They are hosting it for the first time since January 2005. They will play the winner of Sunday’s Minnesota Vikings-New Orleans Saints game next Sunday.
The defense carried the Eagles, holding the Falcons to only one touchdown. The offense did just enough, with Nick Foles actually outplaying Ryan. Foles finished 23 of 30 for 246 yards. Ryan went 22 of 36 for 210 yards and one touchdown, and what mattered most was that he didn’t finish with 212 yards and two touchdowns. Jay Ajayi rushed for 54 yards and had one fumble, with LeGarrette Blount rushing for a touchdown. Alshon Jeffery led receivers with four catches for 61 yards.
The Falcons needed a touchdown because of the Eagles’ fourth-quarter field goal. Facing a fourth and 1 at the 3-yard line with just more than six minutes remaining in the game, Pederson considered going for the touchdown to make it a two-score game.
“I knew if we do go for it and make it, the game could be over at that time,” Pederson said.
He called a timeout to further consider his decision before sending his field goal unit onto the field. Pederson trusted his defense, and Jake Elliott nailed a 21-yard field goal to ensure Atlanta would need to drive the entire field to beat the Eagles. The Falcons reached the 2-yard line, but it wasn’t enough.
Atlanta extended the drive with a fourth-down conversion from Ryan to Jones, who finished with 101 yards. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said leading up to the game that Jones could finished with 350 yards, and if the Eagles won, it would be good OK. Schwartz always says that scoring defense matters more than yards, because as Bradham pointed out about the final play of the game, “we might bend, but we’re not going to break.” The only points they allowed came off turnovers – Ajayi’s fumble, and a fumble after a punt hit Bryan Braman’s leg. When it mattered most on Saturday, the defense didn’t break.
“It was on us and we wouldn’t want it any other way,” Bradham said. “We set the tone for this team. …That’s how we feel. We feel like all the energy and everything comes through us, and everybody feeds off it.”
The Eagles needed Foles, too. The Foles of the first half didn’t look much better than the one who ended the regular season, but a second-quarter sequence buoyed him into the second half. Pushed back at his own 30-yard line with 22 seconds before halftime, Foles lobbed a pass that seemed intended for Falcons safety Keanu Neal. The ball bounced off Neal’s chest and into the hands of Torrey Smith, who did his best Franco Harris impression to bring the ball to midfield. Foles found Alshon Jeffery along the sideline with one second remaining to set up Elliott’s 53-yard field goal, which was the longest in Eagles postseason history.
Foles caught fire in the second half, completing 6 of 8 passes for 78 yards in the third quarter. Jeffery found open pockets to help move the chains. Foles drove the Eagles into field-goal range, where Elliott’s 37-yard kick gave the Eagles a 12-10 lead.
Since Wentz’s injury, Foles has been identified as the biggest reason the Eagles wouldn’t fulfill the potential they showed before Wentz’s injury. Foles now has the Eagles one game from the Super Bowl.
“I’m very humbled to win this game,” Foles said. “I know there were a lot of people against us this past week. … But the biggest thing is that’s sports, that’s part of it, and the biggest thing in our locker room is we believe in one another.”
Foles retreated to the sideline in the fourth quarter with a five-point lead. He had left the field with the lead in his last playoff game, too, only to watch the Eagles lose in the end. It was an agonizing five minutes for Foles, but he trusted the defense “because they’ve shown it all season.”
“Why not happen that way?” Foles said.
They’ll have a chance to do it one more time — and maybe two, regardless of the odds.
“Keep on disrespecting us,” Jeffery said. “We’re going to keep proving people wrong.”