Nick Foles did not begin Saturday's divisional round playoff victory looking like a quarterback who was going to outduel Matt Ryan and lead the Eagles into the NFC championship game.
Foles' first-play pass, thrown into a 22-mph wind, seemed to keel over in midair, landing about 15 yards short of Torrey Smith. But a yellow flag fluttered for pass interference.
Foles took an early sack in which he basically fell backward over an Atlanta rusher. He missed a wide-open Trey Burton on third and 5 late in the second quarter, with the Eagles trailing, 10-6.
But when the Eagles got the ball back with 46 seconds left in the half, Foles got a break: A not-well-thrown pass bounced off a defender and into the hands of Smith for a 20-yard gain, to midfield. After an incompletion, Foles hit Alshon Jeffery along the Eagles sideline for another 15 yards, and Jeffery got out of bounds with one second remaining in the half.
Jake Elliott's 53-yard field goal lifted the mood of the home crowd going into the half and seemed to affect the teams, as well.
"I felt good all game; I thought we were moving the ball throughout the course of the game. The thing about the first half was, we made a few mistakes that hurt us a lot," Foles said after the 15-10 victory over Atlanta. "Anytime you can get points going in at halftime … is huge. … Jake did an awesome job kicking that thing through."
In the second half, it was Foles who did an awesome job, completing 12 of 15 passes for 145 yards, leading the Eagles to a pair of Elliott field goals that were the only second-half points scored by either team.
"It's unbelievable to be up here, it's very humbling to be up here, to go to the NFC championship game with the Philadelphia Eagles," Foles said, after being asked a question that referred to how he contemplated retirement after a miserable 2015 season with the Rams. "It's been a crazy ride, and I'm excited to be able to do it with these guys."
Foles finished 23 for 30 for 246 yards, no touchdowns but no interceptions, good for a 100.1 passer rating. Ryan, the 2016 league MVP from Penn Charter High, finished 22 for 36 for 201 yards, a touchdown, and an 86.6 passer rating. You probably could have won a lot of money wagering that Foles would end the day with more yards and a better passer rating than Ryan.
Much was made in the locker room of how the Eagles were the first top-seeded divisional round underdogs since the current format was enacted in 1970. Nearly everyone declared himself disrespected; right tackle Lane Johnson and defensive end Chris Long wore rubber German shepherd masks that a friend of Johnson's bought online. The masks were meant to evoke their underdog status.
"If we had lost, they were never going to see the light of day," Johnson said.
Just about the only guy not flying the "no respect" banner was the player most responsible for the 13-3 Eagles' being 2.5-point underdogs to the 10-6, sixth-seeded Falcons. That was Foles, the backup who stepped in for Carson Wentz when Wentz suffered a left ACL tear in a victory at the Rams on Dec. 10.
"You're aware of it, because you're human, but we blocked it out," Foles said, when asked about being doubted and criticized. He looked incapable of leading the Eagles anywhere in his final two starts, a 19-10 victory over the Raiders and a 6-0 loss to Dallas in which Foles played only the first quarter.
"Honestly, I don't need to" say anything to critics, Foles said. "Because it doesn't matter. They're doing their job. It doesn't affect how I play or what I believe. Y'all asked me last week if I'm confident in myself. Well, I am confident in myself, because I know how hard we work and I know that we believe in one another in that locker room."
Tight end Zach Ertz, who caught three passes for 32 yards, said, "Nick played his butt off. He made the throws when he had to. We ran the ball efficiently [32 carries, 96 yards], so we weren't facing a ton of third-and-longs, which was huge. That's going to be the way we can continue to do this thing."
Foles' longest gain on a pass play was a 32-yard screen to Jay Ajayi, the same play the Eagles had run on the previous snap, garnering just 3 yards. They tried it again and Ajayi was off to the races behind Jason Kelce and Stefen Wisniewski, going from the Eagles' 20 to the Falcons' 48. That jump-started a drive that ended with Elliott's 21-yard field goal, which set the final score.
"It was a really good drive, took a lot of time off," center Jason Kelce said. Kelce acknowledged he really wanted the touchdown. Ertz and Foles said the Eagles had a running play called on fourth and 1 from the Falcons' 3, but the play clock was running out, so they took a timeout, with 6 minutes, 5 seconds remaining, and decided to take the three points, then rely on their defense, which played its most dominant game of the season on the biggest stage.
"Everybody talked about the last two weeks of the season" as indicative of Foles' playoff potential, Kelce said. "I tried to say this, but the guy had almost no [practice] reps [those weeks]. Everything's a walk-through, we're resting everybody, because we're trying to save people's legs. … It was huge this week and [the bye week] for him to get those practice reps, build some continuity with the receivers, feel the timing of the plays that we're doing. In was just happy for him to go out there and play pretty well."
Eagles coach Doug Pederson wasn't effusive in his praise of Foles. Really, Pederson just asked Foles to manage the game and not give the ball away, so the defense could work its magic. But the plan wouldn't have worked if Foles had been the guy we saw the final two weeks of the season.