This might be a new season, but it didn't seem that way in the Eagles' 18-12 opening win over the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night. There were so many reminders of the Super Bowl, from the pregame celebration, to the Eagles taking a late fourth-quarter lead, to the defense making a crucial stop, to Doug Pederson calling a variation of the Philly Special.
And if that wasn't enough, the game was decided just as it was in the Eagles' postseason victory over the Falcons in January – with a Matt Ryan incompletion to Julio Jones in the end zone. It was even the same end zone at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles advanced to 1-0, showing the resilience that became a hallmark of last year's team.
"The biggest thing, again, no panic on the sideline," Pederson said. "Resiliency. Toughness. Hanging with each other through all the ups and downs, ebbs and flows of the game, mistakes and penalties, turnovers. Just the guys hanging together. There was no panic tonight."
Jay Ajayi rushed for an 11-yard touchdown with 2 minutes, 19 seconds on the clock to put the Eagles ahead 18-12 after a two-point conversion. It was the Eagles' biggest lead of the game, and all they needed was the defense to keep Atlanta out of the end zone – just like the defense did on the final drive of the playoffs last season.
"Here we are again," Pederson thought.
The Falcons drove into scoring distance and had four shots at the end zone from the 10-yard line, plus one final play from the 5-yard line. All five pass attempts were incomplete, including the attempt to Jones in the final season. Ronald Darby was in coverage. The Eagles defense proved clutch when it mattered most, which they did last year, too.
"That gives you a little bit of comfort, we've been here before," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Nobody's panicking, nobody's worried or stressed. Just do your job, line up and play."
Ajayi's two touchdowns led the Eagles. Nick Foles finished 19 of 34 for 117 yards and one interception. The Eagles defense kept the Falcons to one touchdown despite five red-zone trips.
The Eagles needed a jolt in their first meaningful game since the Super Bowl. So on the night fans walked by a statue of the "Philly Special," Pederson called a variation of that famous play at a key moment of the game. This one was named "Philly Philly" — the name Foles incorrectly used in the Super Bowl.
>> Photo gallery: Eagles 18, Falcons 12
On a third-and-5 at the Falcons' 41-yard line in the third quarter, Foles handed the ball to Corey Clement, who pitched the ball to Nelson Agholor reversing field, who threw it to Foles down the right sideline. Foles, just like on Feb. 4, was wide open. The 15-yard gain gave the Eagles a first down, but even more, it gave the Eagles life. A crowd that sat through a weather delay and a sluggish first half came alive with Philly's favorite play. Pederson actually took it from the New England Patriots, who unsuccessfully ran it in the Super Bowl. The Eagles carried that momentum into the end zone five plays later when Ajayi pushed through for a score.
"It worked again," Foles said. "In games like that, Atlanta's a tremendous team…but in the game right there where it's third down, you need a big conversation, but you also want to get some momentum going."
The celebration of the Super Bowl did not go as planned because a weather delay pushed the game back nearly an hour. Fans needed to exit their seats for the concourses, and by the time they returned, owner Jeffrey Lurie paraded the Lombardi Trophy onto the field onto the field with Brian Dawkins pumping up the crowd in his Hall of Fame jacket. A "2017 World Champions" banner was displayed before kickoff, and that team would be proud of the way the 2018 Eagles played.
The Eagles overcame a lackluster offense in the first half and foolish mistakes in the second half. They almost lost their lead in the third quarter after the defense forced Atlanta to punt, except first-year safety Tre Sullivan was pushed into the bouncing ball. It hit Sullivan's foot, and the Falcons recovered with a chance to score. Rasul Douglas intercepted Matt Ryan at the 4-yard line to prevent Atlanta from changing the scoreboard.
That play couldn't help the Eagles seal the game. Foles tried finding rookie Dallas Goedert down the seam in the Eagles territory, but Falcons defensive back Damonte Kazee popped Goedert just as the balls hit Goedert's hands. The second-round pick lost possession of the ball, and linebacker Deion Jones swiped the interception and returned it to the Eagles' 27-yard line. It took Atlanta two plays to score, needing their fourth red zone trip to find the end zone. Tevin Coleman's nine-yard touchdown run put Atlanta ahead, although they missed an extra point so it was only a 12-10 lead – still enough for the Eagles to remain in striking distance. Then came the late fourth-quarter heroics to give the Eagles their first win.
The Eagles defense that helped carry the team late last season and in the two home playoff games looked like they did last winter, pressuring Ryan and building a wall at the goal line. Although the Falcons totaled 115 yards on its first two drives, they had only three points to show for it. That's because the Eagles opened the game with a goal-line stand, stopping the Falcons three times from the 1-yard line, including a fourth down stop by Jordan Hicks and Kamu Grugier-Hill.
When the Falcons marched the ball to the Eagles' 3-yard line on their next drive, the defense again proved stout where and when it mattered the most. They forced a third-down incompletion, and Falcons coach Dan Quinn wasn't going to risk a fourth-down attempt this time. He took a 21-yard field goal and the lead.
"It's probably the game, the deciding factor," Pederson said of the red-zone defense. "The defense, they got down there, bowed their neck, they made several big stops, big stops for us. That's what it takes early in the season like this until your offense gets on track."
But the Eagles offense didn't resemble the high-powered attack from the postseason. They looked more like the sputtering offense from the preseason. They opened the game with two three-and-outs, curiously leaving Ajayi on the sideline for most of their plays. Ajayi paced the Eagles in the first half of the playoff game, but he only had three carries in the first half on Thursday. Pederson made a concerted effort to get him the ball in the second half, and he finished with 15 carries for 62 yards.
"I knew I would have a good day if I just stayed being myself and being the Jay Train," Ajayi said. "It was exciting to start the season off right."
The Eagles tied the game when they cobbled together a 14-play, 53-yard drive in the second quarter in which the Eagles used a no-huddle offense to help catch the Falcons off balance. Jake Elliott's 26-yard field goal put the Eagles on the scoreboard.
>> READ MORE: Running backs got it right, and just in time
Atlanta added one more field goal in the second quarter to enter halftime with a 6-3 lead – and it seemed like the half wouldn't end. Penalties plagued both teams. To show how dismal the first half was for the Eagles, consider this: Julio Jones had more total yards (89) at halftime than the entire Eagles offense (68).
Jones almost added to his total with a deep catch in the third quarter, except the officials deemed it incomplete because Jones was juggling the ball. The incompletion was upheld upon review, spoiling the Falcons' chance to enter scoring range.
The Eagles were still alive, but they needed something to save them from life support. Then came Philly Philly, and it led to more reminders of last year's Super Bowl run – including a dramatic season-opening win.
"I learned that we're a group that perseveres, that can fight, that can overcome, and has some poise," Jenkins said. "I've seen teams that I've been on personally that makes the mistakes we made against a really good team [and] frustration cane build up in the players and coaches. You can just break apart because you don't have the endurance to go the whole game. So I think we learned that we have that, and now it's about playing a more disciplined brand of football."
Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman's newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up.