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McLane: Ryan Mathews carries the load

A week ago, Doug Pederson was asked if Darren Sproles was his No. 1 running back after he had led the Eagles in carries the last two games and he said, yes, he was the "No. 1 back right now."

A week ago, Doug Pederson was asked if Darren Sproles was his No. 1 running back after he had led the Eagles in carries the last two games and he said, yes, he was the "No. 1 back right now."

Pederson wasn't asked about the future, though. The Eagles rookie coach may still give some head-scratching answers during news conferences and calls during games, but he's starting to understand how to play gamesmanship with the media and an upcoming opponent.

On Sunday, Sproles had all of two rushes. Ryan Mathews, meanwhile, paced the Eagles with 19 carries for 109 yards and two touchdowns as they shocked the Falcons, 24-15, behind a balanced offense and a suffocating defense.

Pederson joked that he rode Mathews "just to keep you [reporters] off balance," but there was clearly more to his plan than just fooling Atlanta into thinking Sproles would be his primary ballcarrier.

The tailback fumbled twice in October, but it's not as if he had been inefficient when given opportunities through the first half of the season. Mathews also has a seven-year record of production. To bury him would have been shortsighted.

"You know what, I've always had confidence in Ryan Mathews," Pederson said. "I think what you saw today is the guy that I kept seeing."

The Eagles also wanted - needed - to return to a ball-control offense that remained balanced. In each of their five victories this season, they had a pass-run ratio that was no more imbalanced than 53-47.

In their four losses, the Eagles' pass-run proportion on average was 63-37. On Sunday, Carson Wentz dropped back to pass 38 times and aside from three game-ending kneels by the quarterback, the Eagles rushed 35 times.

Their commitment to the run was, in part, designed to combat the NFL's top scoring offense and keep Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and company off the field. And they did, finishing with a commanding 38:10 to 21:50 advantage in time of possession.

But ball-control balance should remain the Eagles' formula for success because they have a strong defense, potent special teams, and a offense that needs play-action to open up passing lanes for a young quarterback.

"If we run the ball like we did today," tackle Jason Peters said, "it's going to be hard for teams to beat us."

Falling behind in three of their four losses didn't make staying with the run easy. But the Eagles just aren't equipped offensively for Wentz to drop back 47 and 49 times a game - as he did in back-to-back losses to the Cowboys and Giants - and win more times than not.

The rookie has, overall, played beyond his years, but he's not yet ready to carry an offense, particularly one with so many subpar receivers. Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich essentially said as much publicly, but it wasn't a misdirection. They knew they had to return to what had led them to a 3-0 start and past the Vikings.

"It was something that Coach Pederson emphasized coming into the game," receiver Jordan Matthews said. "He said, 'Guys, we have to start playing some smashmouth football to get this offense going.' "

Sproles ran onto Lincoln Financial Field as the starter during pregame introductions, but the bigger, more physical Mathews was first on the field. He ran seven times during the 12-play opening drive and capped the surge with a 4-yard burst.

"We took it all the way down," Peters said, "and I knew from that point it was going to be hard to stop us."

Mathews picked up 34 yards on the series alone. In the previous two games, he had just nine carries for 25 yards. Apparently, a toothache that limited him during practice heading into Dallas had something to do with his limited snaps in that game.

"He couldn't put on his helmet," Pederson said.

Now we know the tooth. Nearly everyone thought Mathews' decreased playing time was because of his fumble foibles. He had root canal the following day. The Eagles had planned on using him more against the Giants, but they trailed early and had to alter the plan.

Pederson and Reich didn't get lost in the fog of a closely contested second half and abandon the run. They opened the third quarter with five rushes on their first eight plays and eventually netted a field goal.

A series later, the Eagles once again drove into the red zone, and three straight Mathews totes advanced them to the 1-yard line. But Pederson dialed up an outside run, Peters missed his assignment, and Mathews was dropped for a 1-yard loss.

"We just failed to execute," Pederson said.

The Eagles settled for a field goal, but the next time they were inside the Falcons 5, Mathews got the rock again and plowed into the end zone for his second touchdown and a 21-15 lead with less than seven minutes left.

"He was running angry," Wentz said. "And then when the O-line is playing like that, it made my job easy."

The Eagles rushed for a season-high 208 yards, their most in a single game since the glory ground days of Chip Kelly when they ran for 256 yards against the Cowboys in November 2014. They don't have anyone as talented as LeSean McCoy, but they have four quality backs from which to choose.

Rookie Wendell Smallwood complemented Mathews with 13 carries for 70 yards. Kenjon Barner didn't get an offensive touch, but he had three kickoff returns for 114 yards. And Sproles still had a Sprolesian 76 total yards - 19 rushing and 57 receiving - even though he wasn't the workhorse.

That designation belonged to the soft-spoken Mathews.

"It's real good," Mathews said of the establishing the run. "It shows a lot."

As it should.