ATLANTA – Carson Wentz wasn’t enough.
The quarterback mounted the Eagles on his back in the fourth quarter, and despite the worst first half of his career, multiple injuries on offense, and his own bumps and bruises, propelled his team into the lead late vs. the Falcons.
But Atlanta retook the lead and the Eagles fell inches short and lost to the Falcons, 24-20, Sunday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It’s frustrating,” Wentz said. “Slow start. We battled back. Offensively, we did our thing late and was able to come down there. We scored and they scored, and then we got right down and came up six inches short.”
Wentz drove the Eagles all the way to the Atlanta 9-yard line. But his fourth down pass to tight end Zach Ertz was just shy of the marker. He dialed up fourth down magic several plays earlier when he chucked a bomb that wide receiver Nelson Agholor pulled in for a 44-yard gain.
Agholor had redeemed himself after dropping what might have been the game-winner on a deep go route. But it would be all for naught as the Eagles dropped to 1-1.
“I told [Agholor] I’m coming right back to him and you saw that on the fourth down play,” Wentz said. “He made a big catch and he’s going to make those plays more often than not.”
Wentz’s first half was forgettable. The Eagles lost receivers Alshon Jeffery (calf) and DeSean Jackson (groin) and tight end Dallas Goedert (calf) to injuries. Wentz briefly left to have his head examined, as well.
“That was super frustrating because I came to the sideline and was sitting there for about five minutes, and then they called down to go look at that,” Wentz said. “To me, that’s just something they got to figure out. That’s super frustrating when I feel fine.”
Wentz’s toughness should never be questioned. He shook off the injuries and his own issues to guide the Eagles back into the lead. Concerns about his potential brittleness aren’t likely to go away, but the doubts about his ability to perform in the clutch should be quashed, at least, for now.
Wentz was again Mr. Third Down midway through the fourth quarter with the Eagles behind, 17-12.
The Eagles would convert four third downs on the go-ahead drive. Wentz connected with Agholor for 16 yards on the first. He hooked up with receiver Mack Hollins for 16 yards on the second. And, in a play that will be replayed for years, he found Hollins with Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. draped on his back.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” Ertz said. “Some of the throws he made -- the third down throw to Mack was just unbelievable. I don’t even know how he gets that off. I’d say 90 percent of quarterbacks just go down, don’t even try, and he’s over there putting his body on the line just to win the game. One of the best players in the league."
Wentz threw the pass just before his knees hit the turf and Hollins gained 17 yards. Three plays later, the Eagles faced third and 1. Wentz was 3 for 3 in short yardage sneaks last week, and again converted here. And for good measure, he snuck again from a yard out for the touchdown.
He spiked the ball emphatically and with the force fell to the ground. But Wentz scraped himself up and hit Ertz for the two-point conversion and a 20-17 lead with just over three minutes remaining.
But the Eagles defense could not sustain the lead as Falcons receiver Julio Jones scored a 54-yard touchdown with 2:10 left in the game.
Both quarterbacks had nights they’d likely rather forget. Matt Ryan tossed three interceptions by the fourth quarter, keeping the Eagles in the game despite their overall struggles. But Wentz settled down in the second half, especially after Ronald Darby’s interception midway through the third quarter.
Starting from the Atlanta 27, the Eagles advanced to the 8-yard line, the key play being a Wentz-to-Ertz 16-yard gain. After three plays, they couldn’t score, and coach Doug Pederson gambled on fourth down. Wentz had all kinds of time, and when Agholor broke free over the middle, the quarterback hit him for a 4-yard touchdown.
Pederson went for two, trailing 16-12. Wentz kept on a zone read, and on a scramble that eerily recalled the play in which he tore ligaments in his knee two years against the Rams, dove into the end zone. But he was ruled down before the ball crossed the plane.
He took a hit, but bounced off the turf, as Eagles fans everywhere exhaled.
“I’m going to do everything I can to protect myself, to get the ball out, to play and stay healthy,” Wentz said. “But, again, tonight was [physical] and we battled and we fought and I did the same.”
There was social media speculation that Wentz had hurt his ribs on the first-half hit by Falcons linebacker Deion Jones. Why else would he have performed so poorly? But Wentz took multiple hits over the next three quarters, and on several occasions would emerge from a pocket scrum to complete a pass or throw the ball away.
“I got the wind knocked out of me a little bit,” Wentz said of the Jones hit. “I kind of left myself exposed there on the ribs. But I feel fine.”
But he clearly wasn’t himself in the first half. It was a nightmare first 30 minutes. Even before kickoff, he was down a tight end. Goedert must have injured his calf during warm ups because he never played a snap. And then sometime over the course of the Eagles’ first two drives, Jeffery and Jackson suffered their injuries.
“It was tough, but we’re by no means going to make excuses. We’ve always talked next man up, but some of the stuff tonight you can’t make up,” Wentz said. “I’ve never seen guy after guy like that [leave] early in the ball game.”
Without his top two receivers and second tight end, Wentz struggled. He took an early shot to his left knee that appeared to cause discomfort. And then he suffered the hit from Jones after he uncorked a deep up-for-grabs toss to receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside that would be intercepted.
Wentz stayed in the game and would complete his next two passes on the Eagles’ ensuing drive. But he threw behind Ertz on his next attempt and was sacked on third down.
The rash of injuries, meanwhile, continued. After he appeared to be errantly walking toward the Falcons sideline, center Jason Kelce went into the medical tent. And Agholor left just before the half to be evaluated for a head injury, which forced the Eagles to use a sixth offensive lineman for a play with only two receivers and one tight end available.
Both players would return, but the offense was disjointed, and Wentz didn’t look right. He threw a pass to Ertz that went directly to cornerback Desmond Trufant for his second pick of the night. There must have been a miscommunication on the route, but the Eagles, nonetheless, couldn’t get anything going.
And then on the last drive before the break, Wentz wasn’t on the field and Josh McCown was. The NFL’s spotter for concussions must have seen something for concern because Wentz had to be evaluated for a head injury.
He would miss only six plays, however, as McCown drove the Eagles into the red zone. But he couldn’t hook up with Agholor in the end zone, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, as the sixth lineman, took a holding penalty (and an illegal formation one that was declined).
The Eagles kicked a field goal, and for as many injuries as they had, and as poorly as they played, trailed only 10-6 at the break. Wentz had arguably the worst half of his career, completing only 6-of-16 passes for 47 yards, tossing two interceptions and compiling a 6.1 passer rating.
But he would return to form after the break.
“I thought that was one of the best performances I’ve seen from our quarterback,” Agholor said. “He was very resilient.”