Nigel Bradham backed a stirring defensive effort that kept the Eagles alive
Best defensive effort of the season? Certainly the most meaningful of a solid year, with the toughest test ahead.
There were quite a few heroes Saturday on an Eagles defense that gave up no points in the second half, and would not have given up a touchdown all day except for a wind-blown gaffe on a punt.
Among them was Nigel Bradham, the linebacker who managed one of the Eagles' three sacks of Matt Ryan, and was chasing the quarterback as he backpedaled before launching that final-play pass over Julio Jones in the end zone, with Jalen Mills in coverage.
Bradham said he was supposed to cover the tight end, who was blocking, so Bradham took off after Ryan. Safety Rodney McLeod said he tried to tell Bradham that the TE would block, after McLeod saw the formation, but even though Bradham couldn't hear him in the pre-snap bedlam, Bradham figured it out.
"I was ready for that sprint-out. Just tried to make him put the ball up quick. I looked back and I saw my man [Jalen Mills] in good coverage," Bradham said. "I was like, 'This game's over!' And I went to flexin'."
Bradham was asked whether this victory was the best effort of the season for the Eagles' defense, which allowed only one touchdown in the month of November – but none of those opponents was the defending NFC champ.
"This is up there," Bradham said, as he considered the notion. "It's postseason. Of course! I'm going to go ahead and say, 'Yeah.' "
The Falcons scored their final points of the day with 5:41 left in the first half, off the punt miscue. They managed four first downs on their final drive; going into that possession, they'd moved the chains three times in the second half.
"It's on us, man. That's all that was said" going into Atlanta's final drive, Bradham said. "It was on us, and we wouldn't want it any other way. That's how you feel when you're on [defense] and you feel like we lead this team. We set the tone for this team and we set the pace for this team. That's how we feel. We feel like all the energy and everything comes through us and everybody feeds off of it."
Bradham said he had no preference for the next game's opponent, which is what players always say. Fellow linebacker Mychal Kendricks might have been thinking about the possibility of playing his brother Eric and the Vikings.
Developing story lines
*Matt Ryan was 10-for-19 for 94 yards and no points in the second half. Six of the completions and 62 of the yards came on Atlanta's last drive, the Falcons' longest drive of the game, 74 yards, with the Eagles playing prevent defense. Nick Foles was 12-for-15 for 145 in the second half, and led two drives for field goals.
*Corey Clement caught five passes (for 31 yards) while playing only 16 snaps. He fought through Keanu Neal and turned a short third-down catch into a first down late in the second quarter. I've said this several times now, but I'm really interested to see Clement's ceiling. He is the best undrafted Eagle in many years. Maybe since Quintin Mikell, who made a Pro Bowl.
*Fletcher Cox's sack of Ryan was crucial to getting the ball back for what became Jake Elliott's 53-yard field goal going into halftime.
*On that third-and-2 LeGarrette Blount run for the Eagles' final first down before the Elliott field goal that set the final score, the blocking was excellent, most notably Zach Ertz taking out defensive end Brooks Reed.
*Something to worry about for next week: 79 rushing yards on just 10 carries for Tevin Coleman, the Eagles really unable to set the edge on outside runs. Devonta Freeman, the Atlanta back who worked more inside, gained just seven yards on 10 carries. By the way, Coleman and Julio Jones (101 receiving yards, on nine catches) accounted for 180 of Atlanta's 281 net yards. That is not a smooth-running offense.
*Something I wrote about the day before the game: Foles spent more than three-quarters of the season running the scout team. Saturday was a big step forward, but on plays such as that handoff to Blount that bounced off Blount's chest, you can see that the offense is still in the process of syncing up with its new leader. Saw Blount and Foles discussing the exchange in the locker room later. Couldn't hear all of it, but I think the ball came in higher and harder than Blount anticipated.
*The only Falcons sack of the game, when Foles fell over Takkarist McKinney, killed an early shot at a field goal for the Eagles.
*Since the underdog-German shepherd mask thing worked so well, maybe the Eagles could do something this week with Cris Collinsworth's characterization of Foles' opening-play heave as "a duck of massive proportions." Have Nick wear a duck suit to his news conference? Just thinking out loud here.
*Also, since Atlanta is out, maybe they'd loan Neal to the Eagles? Use him as a decoy receiver early in the NFC championship game, let Nick bounce a few completions off his knee, build a rhythm.
That Blake Bortles would watch Nick Foles' underdog performance Saturday and say, "hold my point spread …"
The Eagles are 14-3 at home under Doug Pederson (and Jim Schwartz, whose defense really benefits greatly from home-field). They are 8-1 this season, the only loss, of course, being that meaningless game against Dallas in Week 17.
The inadvertent wind-blown touch of a bouncing Atlanta punt – which TV correctly noted hit Patrick Robinson before caroming into Bryan Braman – was a huge boost for the Falcons toward their only touchdown in Saturday's game.
But the Falcons got even more help before reaching the end zone. First play after the miscue, Rodney McLeod broke up a pass intended for Mohamed Sanu in the end zone. A flag flew. McLeod was called for unnecessary roughness, half the distance to the goal line, taking the ball from the Eagles' 18 to their 9.
It was an unusual call. On replays, it seemed McLeod's facemask grazed the back of Sanu's helmet.
"I don't know, man. I try to do my best to play within the rules and still be physical, and I think I did that on that play," McLeod said. "I think [the official who threw the flag] even knew, once he saw the replay. I went up and asked him and he couldn't even really look at me. … It happens in this game. Speed of the game, man. It's hard to make that judgment call. We'd like to have that one back, because it led to a touchdown. That's something that you can't really control."
The intent, obviously, is to crack down on concussion-causing hits. But the Falcons' Keanu Neal later made a much more lethal hit on Nelson Agholor over the middle, without drawing a flag. The crown of Neal's helmet seemed to catch Agholor right under the chin.
"Kinda almost knocked his helmet off," said McLeod, who was watching from the sideline. "There's nothing you can do. [I'll] continue to play my game."