As the seconds ticked down and the Eagles knew that they had advanced to the NFC championship game, Jason Peters reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a dog mask and handed it to Lane Johnson.
This wasn’t some passing of the torch from a Hall of Famer to his young protégé, although Johnson has arguably become the NFL’s best tackle. This was about something else. The Eagles were the first No. 1 playoff seed to be divisional-round underdogs, and Johnson and defensive end Chris Long thought they’d have some fun at the expense of the oddsmakers and the many who had picked against their team.
This past week, Johnson had a buddy purchase the dog masks – German shepherds – off Amazon.
“Just something a little fun,” Johnson said.
But Johnson and his offensive linemates were all business in a 15-10 victory over the Falcons on Saturday that was won in the trenches. The defensive front held up its end, but their counterparts were the linchpins.
If they were to win with Nick Foles, the Eagles needed to establish the run early and they needed to protect their quarterback as the game waned into the second half. It wasn’t always pretty, but the offensive linemen – center Jason Kelce, right guard Brandon Brooks, left guard Stefen Wisniewski, left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Johnson – were the difference.
“All week, we talked about how important it was for us to get something going and for us to support Nick Foles,” Kelce said. “And for the most part we did that.”
Foles was shaky in the first half. He completed 11 of 15 passes for 101 yards, but he was nearly intercepted twice and misfired to open receivers on other occasions. But he got into a groove after the break, threw on time and threw downfield. And he couldn’t have done it unless he had protection.
“I felt really comfortable there,” Foles said.
You could almost visually see his shoulders rise over the final 30 minutes. Coach Doug Pederson had preached for weeks that the Eagles were more than one player – more than Foles, and yes, more than even Carson Wentz. If they were going to eke past Atlanta – and who thought it would look any other way? – Foles would need to be lifted by his teammates.
The quarterback stuck it to his critics with his steady performance. But his line set the tone early on, even on the first carry, in which Jay Ajayi fumbled. The message in assistant coach Jeff Stoutland’s room all week was that his unit held the keys to the car, just as it did in last season’s upset win over the Falcons.
“We’re going to impose our will and run the ball like we did last year,” Brooks said of Stoutland’s missive. “We’re going to smash their stack and get in the linebackers’ faces.”
The Eagles didn’t quite come close to the 200-plus rushing yards or the 38:10 to 21:50 time of possession edge they had in November 2016. They finished with 96 yards on the ground and had a 32:06 to 27:54 advantage. But it was enough against a Falcons defense that hadn’t allowed more than 13 points over its previous three games.
Play-calling balance has been a calling card for the offense almost all season and, in the end, the Eagles ran (32 times) as much as Foles dropped to throw (31 times).
“We committed to that,” Pederson said. “We stuck with it, and the guys executed the game plan extremely well.”
Pederson’s designs weren’t all perfect, but he had enough wrinkles to confound Dan Quinn’s Falcons. On an early third down, Foles faked a pitch and handed off to Nelson Agholor, who was lined up in a quasi-halfback spot, and the receiver motored 21 yards to set up the Eagles’ only touchdown.
A running back would typically get the handoff there, but Pederson installed the Agholor feature this past week. The Eagles had previous success against the Falcons’ aggressive 4-3 front with split zone and inside zones with pulling linemen. But Pederson tweaked some of the runs and had other blockers such as Johnson and tight end Trey Burton pull.
“Just something that [the Falcons] haven’t seen probably in a while,” Johnson said, “maybe not game-plan accustomed to.”
But when the Falcons adjusted and stacked the box to stop Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount early in the second half, Pederson adjusted and the Eagles moved the ball through the air off play action and with run-pass option plays.
The Falcons kept sending an extra rusher and the Eagles’ front kept picking up the blitzes. The Eagles struggled with some of their screens, but on an early fourth-quarter third-down-and 7, Pederson called the same screen pass that had netted only four yards a play prior.
“I was surprised,” Kelce said. “We called the exact same play before that.”
Kelce kicked out and walloped linebacker Deion Jones, Wisniewski ran over two Falcons and Ajayi motored for a 32-yard gain.
“I’ll be honest, I kind of blacked out. I know I hit two guys,” Wisniewski said. “I don’t remember how.”
Foles converted another third-and-7 and on third-and-2, Blount got the call and picked up four yards as Johnson and company drove the Falcons back like sleds.
“They were gassed,” Johnson said. “I feel like they were cold.”
The drive didn’t end with a touchdown, but Jake Elliott’s 21-yard field goal was enough when the defense held at the 2-yard line with less than a minute left.
As Johnson slipped his dog mask on and answered postgame questions in front of his stall at Lincoln Financial Field, Wisniewski nearby tried to express why the Eagles o-line was so effective.
“We’re all playing our best football right now,” Wisniewski said. “I got a lot better since last year. V’s playing a lot better. Lane’s playing at an elite level. Kelce’s playing at an elite level. Brooks’ playing at an elite level. It’s just a great group of guys playing well.”