ATLANTA — Nelson Agholor streaked past the Atlanta secondary, hauling in a 43-yard Carson Wentz pass on fourth-and-14, and the Eagles were improbably alive, at the Falcons’ 18, with 1 minute and 11 seconds to go.
And then a few plays later they weren’t, as Wentz’s fourth-down pass to Zach Ertz near the 8-yard-line was ruled inches short of the marker. Final score, Atlanta 24, Eagles 20, on a grisly, inelegant evening that might have lasting injury repercussions for the 1-1 visitors.
Ertz said he felt he let the team down, after he caught eight passes on 16 targets for 72 yards, and played every offensive snap.
“He can’t feel that way,” Wentz said. "This is a team loss … We made some mistakes early, I made mistakes early that we bounced back from. We just came up short. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves because of the injuries. We’ve got to be better, and we will."
Wentz had watched Agholor drop what sure looked to be the game-winning touchdown bomb on a beautiful throw, a few plays before his fourth-down catch.
“Guys make mistakes … things happen. That’s football. Everybody’s going to own their mistakes and we’re going to learn from it and grow together,” Wentz said. “I told him we were coming right back to him, and you saw that on the fourth-down play, he made a big catch. He’s going to make those plays more often.”
A little earlier, the Eagles seemed on the verge of a huge, character-defining road victory when Atlanta offensive tackle Kaleb McGary fired out and knocked down Sidney Jones, leaving Julio Jones open on a fourth-and-3 screen pass that became a 54-yard touchdown. The Falcons had taken back the lead, for good as it turned out, with 2:03 to go.
Jones’ TD — the late-game play he couldn’t make in last season’s opener, or in the NFC divisional round game before that — was a gut punch in a game that seemed locked in an endless loop of them.
“I love the way these guys fought,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “It was in our hands to win a game and we came up short. It stings, obviously.”
Wentz (25 for 43 for 231 yards, a touchdown and two picks) stumbled trying to spike the ball after his 1-yard dive into the end zone gave the Eagles their first lead of the night, 20-17 with 3:13 remaining. Wentz had gutted the Eagles through a 13-play, 73-yard slog through the Falcons’ defense for what might have been the winning points, had the Falcons not struck right back.
“It was a hard drive, a lot of conversions … to put that drive together, I was pretty excited. I’ve just got to keep my feet a little better,” Wentz said. He had somehow found Hollins on a third-and-9 conversion, as Wentz was being wrestled down for a sack, setting up the touchdown.
Overall, the blue injury tent on the Eagles sideline was open more often than any of their receivers on a night that threatened to derail the season in Week 2.
“You always have a plan for maybe one guy” going down at a position, Pederson said. He said he didn’t know who might be sidelined longterm.
It might be a while before we know the full extent of the carnage, but Wentz entered Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the best set of weapons he has ever commanded, and then spent much of the night trying to locate Mack Hollins or J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, when Wentz himself wasn’t getting banged, dinged, and intercepted.
The offense that looked unstoppable in the second half of the opener crept painfully through the Atlanta night, trying to eke out points here and there. Blessed with excellent field position much of the evening, the Eagles often made the least of it.
Their defense was good enough to win, more or less, despite some lapses. At one point, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw three interceptions in four possessions, gamely keeping the visitors afloat. But they struggled to move the sticks.
The Eagles knew the Falcons would be fired up after their embarrassing 28-12 loss at Minnesota in the opener, but they didn’t know the visiting team would be piecing together lineups on the fly most of the game.
The night of the tent began with tight end Dallas Goedert suffering a calf injury in warmups. The Eagles might have outsmarted themselves there; they sent third tight end Alex Ellis back to the practice squad during the week in order to bring up corner Craig James for special teams. So from the opening kickoff, Zach Ertz was the only tight end.
Before the game had progressed much past the start of the second quarter, the Eagles had lost DeSean Jackson to a groin injury and Alshon Jeffery to a calf injury (maybe he was standing too close to Goedert on the sideline?). Jason Kelce had left briefly and returned, apparently after being evaluated for a concussion. Neither Jackson nor Jeffery caught a pass before leaving.
Oh, and Wentz was throwing the ball all over the yard, maybe partly because he was working with receivers he barely sees during the week, but maybe also because of a hit to the ribs he took from Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, on the first of Wentz’s two first-half interceptions, a deep ball to Arcega-Whiteside, the play beginning with 1:44 remaining in the first quarter.
Agholor also missed a few plays while being evaluated for a concussion. Ditto Sidney Jones. In the second half, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan — the starter at defensive tackle who replaced Malik Jackson, sidelined for the season last week — left with a toe injury. Jernigan had a boot on his left foot afterward.
Pederson had to lift Wentz briefly during the final drive of the first half, set up by a Jones interception, which gave the Eagles the ball at the Atlanta 41. Wentz was being evaluated for a concussion as well, but like Kelce and Agholor, he was able to return. Wentz said he felt no concussion effects and had been sitting on the bench for quite a while, before the Eagles got the ball back and suddenly he was forced to go to the tent by the concussion spotter. He got no explanation for the delay.
Pederson had no explanation for why his team is so beset with foot and leg injuries. But he acknowledged the offensive game plan went out the window.
“When you have your two top receivers and a tight end go down, it’s difficult. Now you’re having to put guys in positions who haven’t gotten those reps during the week," Pederson said. "It cuts things ways down. You’re out of your ’12′ personnel when Dallas isn’t there.”
The Eagles didn’t score, for the 12th time in their last 18 first quarters. But the injury havoc might have had something to do with that.
They netted a 34-yard Jake Elliott field goal from a possession that began at the Falcons’ 43, following a strong defensive series. They got a 41-yard field goal at the end of the second quarter, to pull them within 10-6, despite everything.
Then, disaster, when Corey Clement ran up James’ back while returning the second-half kickoff. He fumbled the ball away and suffered a shoulder injury for good measure, that left him with an arm in a sling.
Three plays later, Ryan hit Julio Jones for a 4-yard touchdown and a 17-6 lead.
Ryan’s second interception, to Ronald Darby after a rare Jim Schwartz blitz, set the Eagles up at the Atlanta 27. On fourth-and-goal from the 4, Wentz waited for Agholor to come free in the back of the end zone and then found him for a touchdown.
Wentz then ran the ball in, diving for the successful two-point conversion, but under a new NFL rule, a diving quarterback is ruled to have “given himself up” and doesn’t have to be touched down. So because Wentz’s knee hit as he bounced to the goal line, he actually didn’t score, which made about as much sense as the injury epidemic.