Eagles-Falcons: What we learned
Ten day-after takeaways from the Eagles' remarkable 15-10 divisional-playoff win over Atlanta.
The Eagles are going to the NFC championship game after winning their first playoff game in nine years. It wasn't exactly pretty, but Doug Pederson's crew showed grit and sent the Falcons packing after a 15-10 win in chilly, windy South Philly. Rain, snow, sleet or shine, here – again — is what we learned:
The Eagles are one win from going to the Super Bowl. I'm stating the obvious, but it deserves an emphatic, bold headline. I'll be the first to admit that I was wrong in my prediction. I had written that the Eagles had the edge in more categories and enough reason to advance. My film breakdowns analyzed how the defense and the offense could best the Falcons. Nick Foles was the concern, however. He had performed poorly in the final two games and there were legitimate questions about his confidence heading into the postseason. I wondered if the players were over the Carson Wentz hangover, as Doug Pederson had alluded to. But Foles and the Eagles stuck it to the oddsmakers and their critics, and I clearly wasn't alone in my doubt. The Eagles were the better team even if Saturday's game came down to the wire. With Wentz, they probably would have coasted past Atlanta. The Eagles' strength in the trenches, in my opinion, might have proven to be their greatest advantage, but Pederson and Jim Schwartz out-schemed their Falcons counterparts, as well. It wasn't a clean performance. The Eagles made more unforced errors and had a few unlucky bounces. They fumbled four times and lost two. They missed an extra point. Foles missed some open receivers. He caught a break when Keanu Neal botched an easy interception and had the ball deflect off his foot into the arms of Eagles receiver Torrey Smith. But the Falcons also benefitted from the inexplicable. I don't know whom the Eagles would rather face next Sunday at 6:40 p.m. The Vikings have arguably the NFL's best defense, but Case Keenum doesn't have the track record of his quarterback counterpart in today's other divisional playoff. The Saints' Drew Brees has a Super Bowl ring, and for the first time in many years, a running game to match his passing prowess. But the New Orleans defense is suspect. The Eagles will once again be underdogs – probably somewhere in the 2-4-point range depending on the opponent. But the Eagles, on average, have played cleaner football than they did against the Falcons. The law of averages would suggest that they'll have fewer mistakes in the championship game and win the turnover battle. The Eagles will also be facing a dome team at home and in January. I think they'll take those odds.
Doug Pederson pushed all the right buttons. If I had been told that the Eagles would reach the NFC title game without Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Darren Sproles, Chris Maragos and Wentz three months ago before their injuries, I would have had my doubts. Pederson deserves much of the credit. I had him as my NFL coach of the year, and Saturday's win only reinforced my conviction. It wasn't exactly advanced coaching to use the underdog angle to motivate his players. I'm not sure how much the posting of predictions around the NovaCare or the Saturday video that had television pundits picking against the Eagles ultimately factored into how the team performed. You'd think the playoffs would be enough motivation. But it might have given certain players an additional chip on their shoulder. Everyone has encountered obstacles over his career and each, I am sure, has used those setbacks as inspiration. Wentz was probably the No. 1 reason the Eagles were the No. 1 seed, but when he went down, few gave Pederson's squad a shot in the playoffs. "Since that point, no one has given us a chance," Pederson said. "Nobody has given us a chance. And I understand Carson's a great player, but every week, our guys are hearing the same thing; that now we are all of a sudden not good enough." Pederson has had great offensive scripts all season. The Falcons defense was formidable, but there were ways to attack Dan Quinn's scheme. Pederson used the Eagles' wins over Atlanta last year and an early-season win over the Chargers, who employ a similar Cover-3 heavy, aggressive 4-3 aggressive front, earlier this season as blueprints. But he effectively tweaked several run plays — different linemen pulled, the tight ends had different blocking assignments, a receiver got the handoff on a critical early third down. And Pederson made the correct calls on fourth down. He gambled on fourth and 1 at the goal line and called an outside zone that got LeGarrette Blount downhill where the running back could stiff-arm his way into the end zone. And he opted not to go for it on fourth and 1 at the 3-yard line, up, 12-10, with 6:05 left in the game. "I was really considering that, going for it," Pederson said. Jake Elliott put the Eagles up by five points with a 21-yard field goal, and Pederson's trust in his defense paid off with a goal-line stand.
Nick Foles can confidently get the job done. It took a half, but Foles finally morphed back into the competent backup quarterback who helped lead the Eagles past the Giants in his first start last month. He completed only 8 of 15 passes for 145 yards after the break, but when he threw, he threw with authority. He was in rhythm with his receivers, and the throws were on time. Foles doesn't have to carry the offense on his shoulders. He doesn't have to make Wentz-like athletic plays. But if the Eagles are to pull off the seemingly improbable, Foles will need to continue to throw the ball downfield as he did after the break against the Falcons. And I'm not talking about 30-, 40-, 50-yard heaves. He just needs to throw beyond the sticks a few times on long drives. Foles was shaky to start. He overthrew Zach Ertz. He was wide of Trey Burton. He airmailed a late first-half pass that Neal should have secured. But the early ground-game success coupled with the strong pass protection bolstered his confidence after the break. There was one other notable difference Saturday that might have helped Foles: Wentz was on the sideline for the first time since his injury. He was there every time Foles came off the field. "We go through the pictures. We talk through it," Foles said, explaining Wentz's new role. "A lot of times when you are playing, you're zoned in, but you talk through different looks, different things that they see and you go from there."
Jim Schwartz out-maneuvered Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian isn't exactly the second coming of Bill Walsh, let alone Kyle Shanahan, but when you have Matt Ryan at quarterback, Julio Jones at receiver, and several other offensive weapons, you have a stacked deck. The Falcons' last play was a prime example. I wasn't a fan of Sarkisian's rolling Ryan out on fourth down at the 2. He effectively gave the Eagles a half of the field they didn't have to defend and he did so with a quarterback who isn't especially mobile. But Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said that he expected the Falcons to try to move the pocket in some way. The defense has the advantage when the field is short and the Eagles' rush had been getting pressure most of the night. But when Atlanta was set, the Eagles knew what was coming. "We recognized the formation as soon as they lined up in it," Jenkins said. That's preparation. That's coaching. That's goes straight to the top and Schwartz. I'll be interested to re-watch the coaches film to get a better grasp on how the Eagles confounded the Falcons and held them to zero second-half points. I don't think Schwartz tricked up much. There were blitzes. There were some man-zone combo coverages. But it looked as if the Eagles mostly played their scheme straight up and simply outplayed the Falcons. It was impressive. They'll likely need a repeat showing next week.
Fletcher Cox sure looked as if he was worth every cent. Cox had been playing more snaps in December. Schwartz had trimmed his playing time ever so slightly through the first three months, but the payoff would be a potentially fresher defensive tackle during crunch time. Cox played 90 percent of the snaps on Saturday and was a consistent force throughout. He had an early run stop at the line. He recorded the Eagles' first sack. He pushed the pocket and kept Ryan from stepping up. He hit the quarterback two other times. And he faced multiple double teams, which freed up other Eagles. He was the best defensive player on the field. Cox's statistics don't always illustrate his impact. Some focus only on his contract numbers. But Cox showed why the Eagles gave him a $100 million deal in the first place.
The "Jay Train" is starting to roll. Ajayi picked up six yards on his first carry, but he coughed up the football. It was his third fumble since joining the Eagles and the second he had lost. But he rebounded. He rushed for 43 yards on his next six totes. He had room to run on several tries, but he also rumbled forward after contact. But for whatever the reason, he wasn't on the field for almost the entire second quarter. "We just didn't have the ball. That and we were off the field," Pederson said. Pederson understandably went with Blount near the goal line on the Eagles' lone touchdown, but Ajayi was on the sideline for the final 11 plays of the first half. He was hot, and the long spell off seemed to cool the "Jay Train" off – at least in terms of his running. He gained only four yards on seven second-half totes. The Falcons played closer to the line in the third quarter, which partly explained his troubles on the ground. But Ajayi, with help from center Jason Kelce and guard Stefen Wisniewski, delivered the Eagles' longest play from scrimmage when he rumbled 32 yards on a third-down screen early in the fourth quarter. The Eagles, ahead by only two points at the time, were backed up and a punt there would have potentially swung momentum. There was a lot of ink spent on the possibility of Ajayi's carrying the workload, but ultimately, his usage (29 snaps, 15 carries and three catches) and that of Blount (20 snaps, nine carries), Corey Clement (16 snaps, one carry and five catches) and Kenjon Barner (one snap) was in keeping with the play-time distribution over the final month.
The secondary slowed Julio Jones once again. The Falcons receiver finished with his second 100-yard receiving day against the Eagles, but it was a quiet Ben Franklin. His biggest moment was a 20-yard grab on fourth down on the Falcons' final drive. Jones was matched up against Jenkins in the slot and got behind the safety on a post route. I'm not entirely sure why Sarkisian wasn't able to exploit some of the Eagles' deficiencies on the back end. Was there a double move the entire game? Schwartz seemed to employ a similar tactic to the one that kept Jones from going off last year. He didn't have one defender follow the receiver. He didn't double him a lot, either. And he had his corners play off when applicable. Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby deserve their share of credit. They missed a few early tackles. Mills held Jones in the end zone in the first half. But they made some huge plays in the second half. Darby came up and stuck a few screens. Mills broke up a Ryan plea that could have resulted in a touchdown had the ball traveled over the corner. And he did a fine job plastering Jones on Atlanta's final play. Did he tackle the receiver off the line? Maybe. But Mills was within five yards and he knew it would have taken a lot for an official to throw a flag in that situation. He angled Jones toward the sideline, and while Ryan's last gasp toss sailed through his receiver's hands, Jones left foot landed out of bounds.
The offensive line was arguably the MVP. I wrote my newspaper column about the Eagles offensive linemen, my most valuable players of the game. I won't spend too much time here going over their success vs. the Falcons front. But I want to point out something I failed to mention in the story, and which I had touched upon up top. The Eagles' o-line might be the best in the NFL — and yes, that includes the Cowboys — and I think it's still fair to make that claim even though they've been without Peters. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has had his down moments, but he has solidified the left flank. And the same, perhaps more importantly, could be said of Wisniewski after he replaced Isaac Seumalo.
You can't quantify character, toughness and chemistry. I don't often write about these topics simply because they can be nebulous. Winning teams have chemistry, losing teams don't. But Howie Roseman, Joe Douglas and Pederson deserve acknowledgement for their roster building. I've covered the Eagles for nine seasons and this is the best group, in terms of character, they've assembled. Are there a few malcontents? Sure. Are there a few egos that Pederson needs to stoke? But football is a game that requires perseverance, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi. That may sound a little trite, but it's true, and the Eagles have overcome great roadblocks this season. "The biggest emotion for me," Pederson said when asked for his feelings after the win, "was the team, the guys, and the resiliency of this football team."
And some leftovers: Jake Elliott continued a run that dates to college in which he's an above-average kicker from beyond 40 yards and an average one closer than 40. He nailed a 53-yard field goal, but missed another 33-yard extra point. Elliott did connect on 37- and 21-yard second half field goals (although a kickoff out of bounds drew a penalty). … Rodney McLeod had a great game. He had a sack, seven solo tackles and didn't allow a single pass over centerfield. And the personal foul penalty he drew in the first half was bogus. He led with his shoulder and hit a shoulder. … Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor were quiet in the first half (a combined three catches for 32 yards), but they each had their moments after the break and caught a total of seven passes for 92 yards. Not great, but good enough. … The Bryan Braman muffed punt could have been avoided if Kenjon Barner had called for a fair catch. He was in proximity. Braman could hardly be faulted for the ball unknowingly hitting him in the thigh, but he would later get a piece of a punt that traveled only 22 yards.