Eagles edge Falcons, advance to NFC title game

Matt Ryan‘s fourth-down pass went through a leaping Julio Jones‘ hands on a broken play, preserving a 15-10 victory for the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Here’s what we learned in Saturday’s NFC nail-biter:

1. This was a victory straight out of a 1980s Bill Parcells game script, with power pushing speed around the field as the Eagles won the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Although the offensive line dominated from the outset, their first-half handiwork was undone by the self-sabotage of four fumbles and a series of Nick Foles misfires. Fortunate to enter halftime down by just one point, the Eagles took control of the contest late in the third quarter with a pair of methodical field-goal drives that totaled 154 yards on 26 plays and 13:39 in time of possession.

2. Ten months of planning, practice and game execution came down to one play at the 2-yard line, in large part because Julio Jones beat Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins for a 20-yard gain to pick up a crucial fourth-and-6 first down after the catch rule’s notorious “survive the ground” clause overturned Mohamed Sanu‘s third-down conversion. It’s fitting that Philadelphia’s defense bowed up for four plays with the season on the line after Tevin Coleman‘s 10-yard run gave Atlanta a first-and-goal opportunity at the 9-yard line. Starting in the second quarter, Fletcher Cox and the Eagles defensive front seven took control of the line of scrimmage, forcing six punts on seven Falcons possessions as Foles’ offense found its footing and managed a trio of field-goal drives to grind out the win.

3. How did Carson Wentz‘s stand-in fare? Foles’ nightmare of a first half was best encapsulated by a botched interception that went through Keanu Neal‘s hands and bounced off the safety’s knee 12 yards backwards into Torrey Smith‘s waiting hands for a 20-yard gain. The worst throw of the day was Foles’ longest completion of the half, ultimately resulting in a 53-yard Jake Elliot field goal into the teeth of a gusty wind. The second half played out like a pre-game Doug Pederson dream scenario. Foles avoided implosion by hitting simple, easily defined throws on run-pass options and screen passes while the defense kept Ryan and Jones off the field. As shiny as Foles’ 100.1 passer rating looks in the box score, his remedial-level work behind center remains a question mark for the NFC Championship Game. Make no mistake, it was Pederson’s play-calling and Philadelphia’s offensive line that were the difference in this outcome. The Eagles will need their quarterback to hit tougher throws to advance to the Super Bowl.

4. Who says randomness doesn’t play a prominent part in the outcomes of NFL games and seasons? The Eagles were lucky to have any points at halftime, as their lone touchdown came about when Foles fortunately fell on a Corey Clement fumble on the 1-yard line. As referenced earlier, Elliot’s lone first-half field goal was made possible by a fluky play off Neal’s knee. On the flip side, Atlanta has the elements to thank for their lone touchdown. Matt Bosher‘s wind-affected punt bounced off of unsuspecting Eagles special teamers Rasul Douglas and Bryan Braman, setting the Falcons up at the Eagles‘ 18-yard line. Atlanta’s plus-four turnover margin on fumbles stands as the most favorable “fumble luck” in the postseason’s first two rounds since at least 2002. An afternoon of fickle winds and designless quirks ultimately came down to Julio Jones slipping twice in the end zone and still having a chance go come down with the game-winner on a last-chance roll of the dice.

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