MALCOLM JENKINS looked even more professorial than usual after the Eagles' 24-15 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Jenkins adding black-framed glasses with woodgrain temples to an ensemble that included a maroon, nubby sweater.
What was Dr. Jenkins' thesis on how he and his defensive teammates held the NFL's highest-scoring offense to its lowest total of the season?
"When you face explosive offenses, you've got to keep them in front of you," said Jenkins, a safety who is the Eagles' defensive leader. "We understood this was a great offense. They've scored on pretty much everybody. We knew we'd have to eliminate those big plays for touchdowns. And when they do get into the red zone, we need to get stops and hold them to field goals. For the majority of the game, we did that."
It was Jenkins who said after last week's loss at the Giants that the Eagles needed to get back to safe, boring, winning football, and they did. The defense continued its homefield dominance, three touchdowns allowed in four home games (in which the team is 4-0). The offense played keep-away with a season-best 208 rushing yards on 38 carries, leading to 38 minutes, 10 seconds of possession time - time that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and transcendent wideout Julio Jones spent stewing on the sideline. Rookie quarterback Carson Wentz was poised and efficient (25-for-36, 231 yards, no touchdowns but no interceptions). The result was a victory the now-5-4 Eagles pretty much had to have to retain credibility as NFC playoff contenders, with a trip to Seattle on tap next Sunday.
Wentz led a fourth-quarter comeback to victory for the first time, engineering a drive for the winning touchdown plus two-point conversion. Later, Caleb Sturgis' 48-yard field goal gave the Eagles their nine-point margin. They had been 0-4 when trailing at any point in the final quarter.
"We know we can finish ballgames," Wentz said. "We know we have the guys to do that. And it's good to show that, finally . . . It's a big game for us as an offense and as a team to pull off a tight win like this.''
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said that his team, now 6-4, "got a taste of our own medicine" from the Eagles' balanced attack. "It was definitely frustrating for us, no question about it. For us to have a team run the ball on us, with the physical style that we like to play, and (for them to) have the explosiveness in the run game, for sure that was a big factor.''
The Falcons had been seventh in the league in rushing defense, but Ryan Mathews, who had carried a total of nine times for 25 yards in losses to Dallas and the Giants the previous two weeks, blasted Atlanta for 109 yards on 19 carries, including a 21-yarder that was a yard longer than any Eagles pass completion. It was the most yardage Mathews has gained in his two seasons with the Eagles, and his most since 2013, with San Diego. Rookie Wendell Smallwood added 70 yards on 13 carries.
"I've always had confidence in Ryan Mathews," coach Doug Pederson said. "I think what you saw today is the guy that I kept seeing, the guy we all wanted to see."
Pederson said Mathews was in a lot of pain - "couldn't put a helmet on" - from an infected tooth at Dallas, underwent a root canal the next day. Then Pederson liked the running-back matchup with Darren Sproles better against the Giants' defenders, but "Ryan was still a part of the bigger picture."
It was hard to say what was more surprising, Mathews' big day or the way the defense stepped up. First downs were 25-11 in favor of the home team, as the Eagles, often going hurry-up, ran 76 plays to Atlanta's 48.
"Ain't nobody impossible to stop," cornerback Leodis McKelvin said.
McKelvin's day was representative of the way the Eagles battled through imperfections. He told Pederson before the game that his healing hamstring wasn't feeling that great, so rookie Jalen Mills started in McKelvin's place. But the other starting corner, Nolan Carroll, left the game with a concussion in the final moments of the first half. So McKelvin was up.
He tried to jump a route on Taylor Gabriel and got burned for the Falcons' only touchdown of the day, a 76-yard bomb that gave Atlanta its only lead, 15-13 once Matt Bryant missed the extra point, with 13:15 left in the fourth. Later, McKelvin saw a potential game-clinching interception bounce off his hands. But as Ryan tried to lead the Falcons for a final-two-minutes TD and subsequent onside kick that might have given them a chance to pull out the win, McKelvin stepped in front of Jones, and this time he held onto the ball.
"They told me before the game that I was going to be an emergency player if anything happened, and God forbid, it did," McKelvin said. The hamstring "was tugging me."
His exposure was limited by the way the Eagles' offense wouldn't give back the ball. Left tackle Jason Peters played a monster game, clearing giant swaths of turf. Tight end Zach Ertz said the Falcons play their linebackers deep, allowing more time and space for combo blocks, but presumably this was something other teams saw and failed to take advantage of.
"Just gettin' on our blocks and stayin' on 'em," Peters said. "We knew it was going to be a physical game, and we just took it to them, before they brought it to us."
Peters said Mathews "is a great running back. When he wants to, he's one of the best in the league. Lately he just hasn't been on track. Today was a good game for him to get back to doing what he had been doing."
Mathews said being able to establish the run game the way the Eagles did "shows a lot." He scored both Eagles touchdowns, on runs of 4 and 5 yards, and ran for the two-point conversion. His first TD ended the Eagles' opening, tone-setting drive, 12 plays, 81 yards, and a whopping seven minutes and 14 seconds, Mathews running seven times for 34 yards. His final TD gave them the lead after Ryan and Gabriel had briefly taken it away.
Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich frequently brought in Isaac Seumalo as an extra offensive lineman, against a defense that routinely keeps eight men in the box. There wasn't a lot of dancing and dipping; it was power running by Mathews and Smallwood, behind solid, sustained blocking.
"We just have to get (Mathews) going a little bit, get his confidence going," tight end Brent Celek said. Mathews' previous season high was 77 yards on 22 carries in the opener against Cleveland. "Give him room and that guy's a beast. He's one of the best backs I've ever played with. I got a lot of confidence in him. I know some things happened early in the season (late fumbles against Detroit and Minnesota) that could deter people from having confidence in him, but I think we, as a team, have the ultimate confidence in that guy, and he's a great player.''
After Mathews' final TD and conversion, the Eagles led 21-15 with 6:49 left, plenty of time for Ryan, who is in the MVP discussion this season. But the next drive ended in a punt after a rare Jones drop (10 catches on 16 targets, for 135 yards), and the Atlanta series after that, fourth-and-5 from the Falcons' 40, Ryan went long for Jones down the left sideline. Jenkins walled Jones off from the underthrown ball, with 2:19 left. Three Eagles runs later, Sturgis set the final score.