The Eagles will host the Vikings on Sunday with the winner earning a ticket to Minneapolis
By Al Thompson
Don’t look now, but the Eagles are just four quarters away from punching their ticket to Minneapolis and Super Bowl LII.
If the Eagles pull it off, it will be just the club’s third trip to the Big Game in franchise history.
The top-seeded Birds (14–3) pounded out a 15–10 win over the №6 seed Atlanta Falcons Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in the NFC Divisional Round and will face the №2 seed Minnesota Vikings Sunday for the NFC title (FOX 6:40 p.m.).
The Vikings (14–3) beat the New Orleans Saints on a walk-off answered prayer, 61-yard touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs.
The Eagles-Falcons game also went down to a final play, at least for the visitors.
Trailing 15–10 with 5:57 left in the fourth quarter, quarterback Matt Ryan, a Philadelphia native, took Atlanta from their own 24-yard line and drove all the way to the Eagles two-yard line with 1:05 left in the fourth quarter.
But the Eagles defense stiffened, stopping the Falcons on a fourth and goal from the two when second-year cornerback Jalen Mills defended a throw from Ryan to Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones to the corner of the end zone that effectively ended the game.
After the victory, Mills talked about the play.
“I knew when (No.) 11 broke the huddle, they were going to him,” said Mills, who finished with two passes defended and a tackle. “It’s fourth down, and you just know they’re going to get him the ball. I kind of ID’d the formation, both my safeties kind of called out the play as well. We were locked in.
“It was kind of a double move,” continued Mills, describing Jones’ route on the final play. “He was acting like he was going to run a fade on me…we were tussling at the top of the route, Matt (Ryan) threw it and it got tipped up. I played it through his hands. I turned around to see where his hands were. They always teach you to play through the receiver’s hands, to put your hands in the pocket of the (receiver’s) hands. That’s what I did.”
The Eagles had four fumbles (two lost) and still won the game.
The one thing the Eagles knew they couldn’t do is turn the ball over if they wanted to beat Atlanta.
So on their first possession that is exactly what the Birds did. Torrey Smith drew a 42-yard pass interference call on cornerback Brian Poole on the opening play of the game on a bomb thrown by Nick Foles that seemed to get caught in the wind in mid flight.
Then on first-and-10 at the Atlanta 33, running back Jay Ajayi lost a fumble after a six-yard gain.
Atlanta drove 59 yards on 11 plays to score on a 33-yard Matt Bryant field goal to go up 3–0.
Good luck stayed with Foles on the next drive as the Birds made it 63 yards on pass interference calls in the first quarter when Mack Hollins drew another pass interference call, this time a 21-yard penalty on cornerback Desmond Trufant.
But another fumble killed the drive. This time it was a bad exchange between running back LeGarrette Blount and Foles. Blount recovered the ball, but the miscue resulted in a seven-yard loss and the drive fizzled.
The Eagles scored the first touchdown of the game in the second quarter after a 14-play, 86-yard drive that ended with a one-yard run by Blount on fourth down. Tight end Trey Burton provided a great block on the score.
The Eagles had a TD called back on the previous play when Foles again had a bad exchange, this time with rookie running back Corey Clement. The ball was recovered by Foles near the goal line. The quarterback lunged over the goal line and at first appeared to have scored. The play was reviewed and overturned.
Jake Elliott missed the extra point clanking the ball off the left upright.
The highlight of the drive was a wide receiver counter to Nelson Agholor that went 21 yards to the three-yard line.
Later in the second quarter, the Eagles turned the ball over again after a fair catch was called for by Kenjon Barner on a 30-yard punt by Atlanta’s Matt Bosher.
Barner did not attempt to catch the ball. When it hit the turf, the ball took a freak bounce sideways and hit special teams ace Bryan Braman on his side as he was making a block.
Atlanta took over on the Eagles 18-yard line.
The Eagles committed two penalties before Ryan hit Devonta Freeman with a six-yard touchdown pass to make the score 10–6.
Those would be the last points the Falcons would score.
It would also signal a turn for the good in the way Foles was playing.
In one of the most bazaar drives of the season, the Eagles stole three points when a sure interception thrown by Foles bounced off the lap or knee of cornerback Keanu Neal and right into the arms of Smith who turned it into a 20-yard gain.
Foles then brilliantly hit Alshon Jeffery for a 15-yard gain with one second left in the half. Elliott proceeded to convert a 53-yard field goal to make the score 10–9 at intermission.
Foles who settled down after those errant throws, finished with a respectable 246 yards on 23-of-30 passing with no picks and a QB rating of 100.1.
“You know, I am very humbled to win this game and to be a part of this team,” Foles said. “That’s what it’s always been about. I know there was a lot of people against us this last week. Just answering questions, and just hearing about it. But the biggest thing about this is that is sports, that’s part of it. The biggest thing in our locker room is we believe in one another. Everyone believes, and that was shown on display tonight. The city of Philadelphia obviously believes because they were here and loud. So we are grateful for that. Honestly, it’s unbelievable to win this game and we are not finished.”
Head coach Doug Pederson said the team fed off Foles as he got more comfortable as the game unfolded.
“Yeah, and probably with any offense and any team, I’m sure the Patriots feel the same way with (Tom) Brady, the way he goes, they feel that energy, and same way with us,” Pederson said. “How ever your quarterback goes, you’re going to feed off of that, and you’re going to feel that energy and you’re going to feel that confidence. And that’s the way the team felt as the game wore on.”
The only scores of the second half with two field goals by Elliott who hit from 37 and 21 yards. But it was all the Eagles needed.
Five-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack talked about the Eagles defense.
“It was a real good defensive front we were up against,” Mack said. “I think we had some chances, had a couple shots. We knew they were going to be up-the-field explosive kind of guys. We just needed to limit some of the negative plays and capitalize on some of the positive ones a bit more. It was tough for us to stay on schedule. We never got into the groove we wanted to. It was close. It’s tough to put your finger on what didn’t go quite right.”
The Eagles defense, led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (seven tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, two QB hurries) held the Falcons to 86 yards rushing as a team and Ryan to 22 of 36 passing for 210 yards, a sack and a QB rating of 86.6.
“We played our type of football we’ve been playing all year,” Mills said. “Guys were focused all week since the bye week…not knowing who we were playing but just competing at a high level, ones versus ones. Then going into this week of preparation, the energy level at practice was crazy. Guys were competing at a very high level, and I think that showed up here today.”
Eagles All Pro right tackle Lane Johnson talked about the crowd noise at the Linc.
“Huge, huge,” Johnson said with a big smile. “It was cold, it was frisky, we had guys and girls raising hell all night. It was the most energy I’ve seen in a long time here.”
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii