A great, sustained burst of noise shook the divot-pocked turf beneath Jalen Mills’ feet as the play began that not only would decide Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff but might forever define the second-year Eagles cornerback’s career.
The Eagles led, 15-10, with barely a minute left. The Falcons faced a fourth-and-goal at Philadelphia’s 2. And everyone at Lincoln Financial Field knew that Mills’ man, Julio Jones, the NFL’s best receiver, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound tower of talent, was going to be Matt Ryan’s target.
And that’s exactly what Mills wanted to experience.
“As a defender, that’s what you want. Being in those situations and making that fourth-down stop,” Mills said after his defense helped the Eagles to their first playoff win in eight years. “It’s fourth-and-goal. On the goal line. To make a play to end the game, that’s what you’re there for.”
Before Ryan’s 36th and final pass sailed through Jones’ outstretched hands, the game’s pivotal play included a breath-stopping series of ups and downs, literally and figuratively.
When Jones lined up wide and to Ryan’s right, safety Malcolm Jenkins knew he was getting the ball and called that out to Philadelphia’s defenders. Mills, prepared for a collision and a battle, struck first.
“I saw 11 [Jones] come over there and I knew that in a game like this, a playoff game, they were going to try to get the ball to him,” Mills said. “He’s the best player on their team. I was locked in, focusing on my technique.”
Mills jolted the physically intimidating receiver while absorbing a rib-jarring hit in return. The crash sent both players to the ground, the unexpected knockdowns forcing Ryan to buy time by rolling to his right.
Now the pitch of the crowd’s anticipatory roar shifted to a higher, more intense note. Jones and Mills bounced up simultaneously and as they sped in combative tandem toward the end-zone’s corner, Ryan unleashed the ball.
On their feet, breathlessly and often unconsciously grabbing at their neighbors’ arms, fans scanned that corner of the field for a flag. They sensed that so much contact might result in an interference call, and, even if the pass was incomplete, another chance for a Falcons victory.
Asked if a penalty was a concern of his, Mills said, “No, not at all.”
“This is playoff ball,” he said. “This is big-boy ball. He’s a big guy and if you go out there and play timid, he’s going to push you around. If it was coming down to a call like that, I’m not thinking about that. … We were fighting. It got physical at the top of the route. The refs let us play. That’s what you want.”
The Eagles cornerback jumped, his outstretched hands trying to obscure Jones’ vision. The Atlanta wideout, three inches taller than his defender, leaped even higher. But, whether he momentarily lost sight of it or not, his hands clasped together only after the ball had passed them.
For Mills, matched up most of the night with Jones, who had nine catches for 101 yards, success on the ultimate play was vindication. All week long, he had been telling reporters and teammates that he relished the matchup.
“If you’re going to play and be successful in this league, you’ve got to want to challenge yourself,” said fellow cornerback Ronald Darby. “That’s what Jalen was doing by talking this week.”
The crucial fourth-down play came immediately after one of Jones’ receptions — a 7-yarder on third down that pushed the ball to the 2 — was reviewed. The delay gave the defense plenty of time to dwell on the next play, whether it was to begin at the 2 or the 9.
“It didn’t matter to us,” said Mills, whose rookie year was kick-started by the job he did on Jones in another Eagles home win over the Falcons. “Either way we were going to have to defend the goal. That was our focus.”
As Mills talked to reporters, beads of shower water dripped from his green-dyed hair onto a Gang Green shirt — an homage to earlier Eagles defenses — that he swore he would wear throughout the coming week.
Last night, he said, the defense made sure no one was wearing shirts emblazoned with a big “S”.
“We played with energy and we took that energy level and matched it times two in the second half,” he said. “The whole slogan this week was just go out there and do your job. Nobody has to be Superman.”
But somebody had to defend him.