- The rematch of last year’s divisional round playoff matchup felt just like the first one, right down to the Falcons’ final play. And once again, the resilient Eagles overcame the obstacles to hold on, 18-12, while the Falcons can’t get out of their own way in the red zone
PHILADELPHIA — Were we really here again? The game coming down to a single play, Falcons offense driving toward downtown Philadelphia, Eagles defense trying to mount one last stand.
“It was almost like déjà vu,” says Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby.
On Thursday night, just like eight months ago in the divisional round of the playoffs, everyone at Lincoln Financial Field knew that Matt Ryan would throw to Julio Jones. The throw was to the opposite side of the end zone (right then, left now), and there were different cornerbacks in coverage (Jalen Mills then, Darby now), but both times the end result was the same. The pass was waved incomplete, and we learned that the Eagles are the kind of team that finds ways to win.
That might seem like a question that didn’t need to be answered on the night when the franchise unveiled its first Super Bowl banner from the top tier of the stadium, an understated tapestry that simply read “2017 World Champions.” But Carson Wentz is still sidelined from his December ACL tear; and Nick Foles, with a 68.1 passer rating, looked like the Hyde to his Super Bowl LII Jekyll. Veteran leaders like Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long have been saying, every chance they get, that the 2017 Eagles mean nothing to the team they will be in 2018. That point was driven home when the defending champions were booed by their home crowd after an ugly first half in which they scored three points and managed just 68 yards of offense.
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“We got a lot to prove this year,” Long insists. “It’s a new year. That banner that they did tonight, it’s cool to look at, but it really doesn’t mean anything to us. We go out and lay an egg all year, nobody’s gonna care about last year. We have been saying for a month in this locker room, we are over last year.”
If last year’s Super Bowl title was made possible by the resolve-testing wins the team delivered after losing its MVP-candidate quarterback—not to mention its left tackle, a multi-purpose running back, a special teams ace and its most versatile linebacker—then the 18-12 win against the Falcons represented more than just a tally in the win column. “We have endurance,” Jenkins answered when he was asked what he learned about his team on Thursday night. That’s how the Eagles won, despite their many reasons to lose: their 15 penalties, a fluky interception and an even flukier turnover on a punt return, and an uncharacteristically rough night catching the ball from the normally reliable Zach Ertz. Not to mention, Wentz and the Eagles’ top receiver, Alshon Jeffery, were confined to throwing and catching only during pre-game warm-ups. Wentz may be sidelined a few more weeks; Jeffery, who is returning from offseason shoulder surgery to repair the torn rotator cuff he played with all last season, said he has “a couple more visits with the doctor” before he can return. Asked if he is still a few weeks away, Jeffery nodded, saying that some days he feels great and some days are tough.
“Me and [Wentz] were both talking about it, missing the games and just watching, it’s kind of hard,” Jeffery says. “At the same time, we got great teammates, and great players on this team.”
What the Eagles did on Thursday night, like they did last season, was manufacture ways to win even when the circumstances were dire. The defense allowed the Falcons to march to the 1-yard line on the season’s first possession, then held on three straight plays, culminating with a fourth-down stop on Devonta Freeman.
The offense that was booed by their fans at halftime found a spark in the third quarter, thanks to a reprisal of the Patriots’ pass play to Tom Brady from the Super Bowl—“the one that Tom dropped,” right tackle Lane Johnson snarkily reminded a national audience after the game. The 15-yard pass caught by Nick Foles looked like the famous Philly Special, except this time Foles was the player taking the snap, and he then handed it off to Corey Clement, who flipped it on a reverse to Nelson Agholor, who completed a pass in a game for the first time since Pop Warner. “If we gotta do it again,” Agholor says, “we’ll do it again.” (Head coach Doug Pederson certainly has the stones for that.)
But, just as it was on a frigid, windy day last January, this game was decided on the final series. Ryan, erratic throughout the night, overcame two sacks on the final drive to set the Falcons up with a first-and-goal at the 10, 24 seconds to go. And just as it was in their last matchup, the Eagles’ defense was up for the challenge.
Ryan was under duress from the rotating cast of Eagles defensive linemen who, as Long explains, can throw off a QB’s rhythm with their varying rushing styles. Ryan threw four straight incompletions—but then, a flag: illegal contact on linebacker Jordan Hicks, the game’s 26th accepted penalty.
“A bogus call,” Darby says.
“It felt eerie,” says Long.
With one second left on the clock, it set the stage for one more play, five yards out. Jenkins, as he always does, kept things calm in the huddle. At the snap, Darby was clustered with two other DBs—Sidney Jones and Rodney McLeod—on the left side of the field. Jones and Mohamed Sanu were bunched together, and Jones pivoted left, angling for the left corner of the end zone. The Falcons’ play design worked, two defenders following Sanu, leaving Darby one-on-one with his man, Jones, who’d ditched him for a 22-yard gain earlier in the game. Ryan’s throw was a bit too wide; Jones and Darby turned and made a play for the ball.
“They go my way, I’m going to find a way to make a stop,” Darby says. “Locked in, play aggressive, never play scared.”
Darby didn’t know exactly where the sideline was as Jones clutched the ball and Darby clutched the superstar receiver, trying to escort him out of bounds (the “force-out” rule has been gone for years). It wasn’t until Darby saw the official signal out of bounds, and his teammates rush to celebrate, that he knew the Falcons’ last chance to win had been extinguished again.
“Nobody was stressed,” Jenkins says. “We’ve been here before.”
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