If the expectation going into Saturday’s divisional round playoff game was that the Eagles’ defense would need to carry the day against the Falcons, holding down the score while its own offense produced what meager amount it could, that expectation became the reality by the end of the afternoon.
Retrospect changes everything, of course, but if the task had been put that bluntly – the Falcons must be limited to no more than 14 points – the likelihood of hosting the National Football Conference championship game wouldn’t have seemed likely at all.
“That’s crazy. That last drive was crazy,” linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. “But we’ve been there before this season. We know what it takes to win the big game. It comes down to who has the ball last, and who wants it more.”
Kendricks was still bouncing around the locker room, still in his uniform, just minutes removed from the fourth-down play that decided the game, a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan eventually settling for a prayer to Julio Jones that wasn’t answered.
The truth is that the defense hadn’t been in that situation during the regular season — not even close. It forced Carolina to punt from around midfield as the Eagles held a five-point lead in the closing minutes of that game, and it forced a punt from the Rams, holding a two-point lead, with about two minutes to play. But that was as close to what the Eagles faced on Saturday as it got, and that isn’t very close.
Ryan had taken the Falcons from their own 24-yard line, survived one fourth-down conversion, and gotten his team in position to take four makeable shots into the end zone for the win. Not just any win, but a win that would extend one team’s season and end another’s.
So, no, the Eagles hadn’t been there before. Their preparation throughout the season is what got them through when the challenge did rise up before them.
“Watch this, watch this,” Kendricks said, grabbing fellow linebacker Nigel Bradham in the next locker. “Y-off, 3-by-1. What’s coming?”
“Sprint out,” Bradham said.
“Y-off, 3-by-1. We all knew what was coming,” Kendricks said, hooking a thumb toward Bradham. “And he rushed the quarterback and made him hurry.”
On that deciding fourth down, Ryan did sprint out to the right, just as Kendricks and Bradham knew was coming, just as safety Malcolm Jenkins called out to the rest of the defensive backfield. The Eagles flowed that way, double-covering the slot receiver and tying up the tight end with pressure around that end. That left just Julio Jones along the sideline in the end zone and a jump ball with Jalen Mills that Ryan sent their way just before Bradham reached him.
“Obviously, the whole season was on that play right there,” Jenkins said. “We were pretty confident they’d move the pocket on that type of play We recognized the formation as soon as they lined up and were able to take away the first two reads on the sprint out, and he tossed it up into coverage, and we move on.”
They move on having limited Atlanta to just 281 yards of total offense and shutting out the Falcons for the final 35 minutes, 41 seconds of the game. Atlanta punted four straight times before losing the ball on downs on that final possession.
The Falcons had just 79 net yards on those four possessions, and the Eagles took the ball back and turned three of the punts into field goals. Maybe it wasn’t the most impressive display of offense, but it was good enough to turn a 10-6 deficit into a 15-10 win and send the Eagles back to the NFC championship game for the first time since the 2008 season.
“This is what we want to do, have an opportunity to win it on defense,” said Chris Long, part of the defensive end rotation. “If the offense doesn’t get enough points, we can’t do it without them, but we like having the game in our hands. We made big plays down there at the end. Our DBs stood up and covered [Jones], whether on that fade route or on the sprint out. [The Falcons] took their chances, but we did enough to make Ryan double back and scan the field, and there wasn’t anything there.”
As close as they came to it, the Eagles could understand what it must have felt like for that game to end and be left with nothing. The Falcons were that close, but they left the field with only the memory of how close. The Eagles left with something to look forward to, not just something to look back upon.
“That’s what this time of year is about,” Bradham said. “That’s what the postseason is about.”
For the Eagles, this time of year and this postseason is going to be about defense. That was true Saturday, and it will be true next Sunday, and will be true all the days until this time of year is over, one way or the other.