January 13, 2018

Final observations: Eagles 15, Falcons 10

Eagles NFL
011318-NickFoles4-USAToday Brad Penner/USA Today

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles throws a pass against Atlanta Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley during the third quarter in the NFC Divisional playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field.

The Eagles somehow managed to turn a game most people expected them to lose into one of the most soul-wrenching experiences imaginable. But in the end, the home team came up with big plays when it mattered, and the Birds march on to the NFC Championship Game following a wild 15-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

The Good

• The Eagles locked up Alshon Jeffery as their No. 1 wideout for a reason. Nick Foles has struggled to get him the ball during his time at the helm, but Doug Pederson was not about to let his top guy go to waste in the biggest game of the season.

Down 10-9 and pinned deep in their own territory, the Eagles ran back-to-back plays for Jeffery and quickly put Atlanta on their heels. We spend lots of time doing in-depth analysis and film study to determine what goes right or wrong for the Eagles in a given week. Sometimes, it's really just as simple as getting your best players the ball and letting them go to work.

What made the stretch from Jeffery even sweeter was seeing Pederson use run-pass option plays — a staple of the Chip Kelly era — to get the job done, bringing the offense back to life with a trick from his predecessor's bag of tricks. If there's an area where Pederson shines, it's his willingness to try things and change it up to spark something, whether it's the use of tempo or a wrinkle in the playbook.

Of course, it would have been even better to get Jeffery involved in the game early on. But credit to the team, the coach and the players involved for adjusting mid-game and finding a way to get something going.

• The mark of a great team is the ability to overcome mistakes and stay in position to win anyway. Philadelphia did not have their A-game against Atlanta, but boy did they come up with some huge, momentum-shifting plays when they needed them.

Rodney McLeod's sack to close the third quarter was absolutely massive, following an out-of-bounds kick that brought the Falcons to their own 40 to start. The 10-yard loss shifted the expectations for the drive on the very first play, and gave Eagles fans a big lift heading into the final quarter.

McLeod got jobbed on a targeting penalty in the first half, but he had a big day and looked born to play cold weather football. His timing was on point, and his big-time hits popped just a little bit more on a cold winter night.

• If anyone deserves a gold star for their performance on Saturday, it's the boys up front. Philadelphia's offensive line gave Foles plenty of time to work, and when they weren't protecting him in the pocket they were crushing blocks down the field.

Stefen Wisniewski being back and healthy was a huge deal for this Eagles team, and on a third-down screen that Jay Ajayi took for a big gain, Wiz was the man leading the way.

That is a grown-ass man play, and it's the sort of power football Eagles fans envisioned when they had Super Bowl dreams forming months ago.

• Nick Foles did not have anything close to his best stuff in the first half and was a big reason the Eagles came out down a point in the third quarter. But give the man credit for the work he did in the second half, shrugging off some early misses en route to a stellar performance when his team needed it the most.

There was nothing spectacular about what he did, and perhaps that was the point. Pederson didn't ask him to take many shots down the field, instead, keeping Foles in lots of West Coast staples and RPOs, and his quarterback finally looked locked in from the mid-point of the third quarter onward.

• What more could you ask for out of the defense on Saturday? A lot of the Eagles' money is tied up in their defensive line moving forward, and they had pretty close to a perfect game against the Falcons.

Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and the rest of the gang got into Atlanta's backfield constantly on Sunday, from the opening quarter until the end of the game. Matt Ryan and the Falcons' running back duo had little time to think back there.

And just so we're on the record here: Jalen Mills can wag his finger all he damn well pleases after staying with Julio Jones on Atlanta's final play of the game. 

• Regardless of the outcome of the challenge, Doug Pederson made the 100 percent correct decision to challenge Atlanta's non-catch with 3:30 left in the game. A completion would have meant a first down for the Falcons, and there was never going to be a higher leverage play than that one.

These are the sort of plays you have challenges for in the first place. Excellent decision by the coach, even if the Falcons picked up a first down on the very next play.

• This Eagles team from top to bottom deserves a massive amount of credit for the resilience they've shown since losing their MVP candidate. Written off by everyone from gamblers to their own fans (at times), they came out and did just enough to keep their pursuit of a Lombardi Trophy alive.

That's a testament to Pederson as a leader and a coach, the collective talent assembled by Howie Roseman, the character of the guys in that locker room, and to whoever else you want to dole credit out to. The Super Bowl dream may not be as vivid as it was before, but it is very much alive.

The Bad

• Atlanta made it tougher for the Eagles to come up with big plays on defense than Philly's offense did for theirs, but there were some real missed opportunities for Jim Schwartz's guys to change the game with a single play.

None would have made a bigger difference than a throw off the hands of Mychal Kendricks midway through the third quarter. He sniffed out a throw from Matt Ryan and broke on the ball, and simply couldn't haul it in on a cold January evening. It would have given the ball to the Eagles in Falcons territory with a chance to take the lead, and with the way their defense was playing from a deficit it felt like it would have given everyone involved a lift.

It's hard to put blame on the defense for this game, as they got plenty of penetration up front and did well sticking with Atlanta's skill-position players on the back end. But they knew as well as everybody that a big defensive play was needed with their MVP quarterback watching in street clothes. Unfortunately, they couldn't come up with one.

• Pederson had what it is easily his toughest call as a coach with time winding down in the fourth quarter. Up 12-10 and faced with fourth-and-two, Pederson at first made it look like they'd go for it before eventually calling a timeout and kicking a field goal to take a five-point lead.

I understand the reflex to make it more than a three-point lead, and I think it was totally justifiable given the way the defense played. Personally, I would have liked to see Pederson continue to be the aggressor and stay true to himself. Win or lose I think you want to go out playing your brand of football and not allowing anyone else to decide the game but you. 

Really, the only objectively bad thing about this decision was burning a precious timeout in a close game. Whether you go for it or not, you have to hold onto that and just take the delay of game penalty that close to the end zone.

The Ugly

• Jake Elliott made a couple monstrous kicks throughout the game, but the rookie's inexperience in this sort of environment showed big time. The missed extra point was brutal, and he was lucky his out-of-bounds kick in the third quarter was almost immediately erased by a big Rodney McLeod sack on first down.

On balance, Elliott has done a lot more good than harm this year. But he needs to iron out some of the erratic play for Eagles fans to have that feeling of comfort back with the special teams.