One by one, members of the Eagles’ defense stood at their lockers and swore that they knew what was coming. That the ball was going to Julio Jones. That Matt Ryan would be sprinting to his right. That all they needed to do was execute the countermeasures they’d put into place.
That fourth-and-2 incompletion from Ryan to Jones was an interesting thing to consider from a number of vantage points. From that of Jalen Mills, who knew from the moment the Falcons broke the huddle that the ball was coming his way. From that of Jim Schwartz, who’d drilled his players so thoroughly on the tape that they recognized immediately what was about to unfold. From the 60,000-plus who made the ground inside the north end zone shake as Ryan rolled to his right.
Now, pull the camera back a little bit and consider things from the perspective of the Falcons’ defense, which spent much of Saturday evening looking as if it had little idea what was coming from the Eagles’ side of things. Doug Pederson’s offense does not feature a go-to receiver like Julio Jones. It does not have a 1,000-yard rusher like Devonta Freeman. And it most certainly did not feature a former MVP quarterback like Matt Ryan (as everybody who’d spent the previous week writing Nick Foles’ obituary repeatedly made it known). But in a 15-10 win that propelled the Eagles to their first NFC Championship berth since the 2008 season, Pederson’s offense had something that Steve Sarkisian’s lacked, and that thing was a clue.
All week, Pederson had played the archetypal role of head-coach-as-emotional-leader. In public and in private, he doubled down on the message he’d preached since Carson Wentz’s torn ACL in Week 14, that the Eagles had always been more than a one-man team, that victories were not awarded to the team with the best player under center, but to the team that surrounded that guy with the best brand of football. He seized upon their sudden standing as the underdog, taking every opportunity to remind his players of the doubts that prevailed outside the team’s practice facility, leaving notes in meeting rooms about the overwhelming consensus among prognosticators picking the Falcons.
Yet when game-day arrived, it was Pederson the play-caller who took center stage. The game plan was built to get Foles into a rhythm, with a short, quick-hitting, pitch-and-catch passing game that placed a priority on percentages and limited the opportunity for mistakes. Bu the difference between victory and defeat came down to a handful of big plays that were artfully conceived, brilliantly timed, and flawlessly executed.
Exhibit A was a 32-catch-and-run by Jay Ajayi on a third-and-7 screen pass early in the fourth quarter that helped set up the 21-yard field goal by Jake Elliott that left the Falcons needing a touchdown in the game’s waning moments. Pederson, according to several players, had called the same play on the snap before, but the Falcons had held Ajayi for a 3-yard gain. Rather than trying his luck somewhere else, Pederson went right back to the same call, a move that garnered him plenty of credit in the locker room afterward.
“We were kind of surprised when he called it again because usually you don’t call back-to-back screens,” said center Jason Kelce, who teamed with guard Stefen Wisniewski to seal off an alley down the left side of the field for Ajayi. “The defense probably wasn’t expecting that either, so kudos to throw them off balance with that call.”
Exhibit B was a 21-yard run by Nelson Agholor in the second quarter that gave the Eagles a first-and-goal at the Atlanta 3-yard line and helped set up the Eagles’ touchdown. At the snap, Ajayi’s movement and Foles’ footwork suggested a pitch to the right. But with the Falcons’ defense flowing in that direction, Agholor came across the formation from the opposite direction and took a handoff from Foles around left end for the big gain.
“It’s something that we hadn’t put on film,” said Lane Johnson, who was pulling around from his right-tackle spot to lead block on the front side of the play. “We had it with the backs in, but not with the receivers. Any different wrinkles we could throw in to create some confusion, we did.”
Each of the Eagles’ four scoring drives featured a play of 20 yards or more, each by a different member of the offense. (In addition to Ajayi’s catch and Agholor’s run, Torrey Smith caught a ball that caromed off a Falcons defender for a 20-yard gain on the Eagles’ field-goal drive at the end of the second half, and Jeffery caught a 21-yard pass on the late-third-quarter drive that resulted in Elliott’s go-ahead field goal.)
That stood in stark contrast to the Falcons’ offense, which spent most of the evening looking discombobulated and confused. Apart from some early success attacking the edges with the running game, and a handful of something-out-of-nothing throws by Ryan, Sarkisian’s game plan yielded nothing.
In the end, the Eagles’ defense knew what was coming. The Falcons’ defense didn’t. That, more than anything, is why this improbable season will live on for at least another week.