PHILADELPHIA — It is rare for an NFL playoff game to truly come down to one moment, one play. It is even rarer for the players on the field, for an entire stadium full of fans ravenous for their first playoff win in nearly a decade, to understand the moment before it happens.
As the NFL’s replay officials examined a third-down catch from Julio Jones with 1:05 remaining in a stirring 15-10 Eagles victory Saturday that was over-stuffed with plot twists, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins gathered his team to make sure they got it.
“The biggest thing I wanted everyone to realize was this is it. This is the season. I wanted guys to feel that moment,” Jenkins explained after the game. “The crowd is going crazy. It’s fourth-and-2. … It’s one of those things that you dream about. Literally, where you make a play, you move on. You don’t, you go home. Everything we worked for since last April is coming down to one play, and we got to be ready.”
They could not have been more ready. After a Divisional Round game jam-packed with so many strange, unpredictable turns, the fateful fourth-and-goal play call from the Atlanta Falcons was easier to read than a children’s book.
Through film study and practice, Eagles safeties Rodney McLeod and Jenkins both identified that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was going to sprint right and look for Jones. Jenkins was asked when he recognized the play, and he replied:
“Probably before they broke the huddle,” he answered to laughter that could haunt Falcons fans frustrated with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian all offseason.
“It was right hash. That’s a lot of teams’ tendencies for a sprint out. As soon as I saw the tight end come over, I was like, ‘There it is!’ ” McLeod said with deep satisfaction. “This is everything you dream of as a player.”
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had his players defend that exact play multiple times in practice, and they went over it again during Friday’s walk-through session. It’s one thing to be prepared for a season-changing play, however, and another to execute a stop against a future Hall of Fame wide receiver.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn explained after the game that they wanted to get Jones matched up against Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills, and they were successful in that. Mills said he was coached up to be physical with Jones at the top of the route, which wound up causing Jones to slip as Ryan rolled out, disrupting the timing on the play.
“I ended up on the ground,” Jones said via NFL Network’s Tiffany Blackmon. “In that situation, it is very difficult (for an official) to call that play.”
Getting a penalty was the last thing on Mills’ mind.
“This is playoff ball. Big boy ball. If you go out there and play timid, (Jones) is gonna push you around,” Mills said.
While there was little separating the Nos. 1 and 6 seeds in the NFC throughout Saturday’s game, the Eagles are going to their first NFC Championship Game since 2008, in large part because they refuse to get pushed around. The final score and style of play on a sub-freezing, windy night in Philadelphia was reminiscent of the Buddy Ryan years in Philadelphia.
The Eagles‘ offensive line wore down the lightweight Falcons defense in the second half during a pair of long field-goal drives that took up 26 plays and more than 13 minutes of game time. Perhaps Philadelphia’s defining play before Ryan’s failed fourth-down throw was a 32-yard screen pass to Eagles running back Jay Ajayi, in which both center Jason Kelce and guard Stefan Wisniewski got on the edge and tossed multiple Falcons defenders aside like ragdolls.
“I know I hit two guys. I don’t remember how,” Wisniewski recalled.
After a month of consternation about how Eagles quarterback Nick Foles would fare in his quest to replace MVP candidate Carson Wentz, who was lost for the season in Week 14, the Eagles did a fantastic job minimizing Foles’ exposure. Foles’ numbers — he finished 23 of 30 for 246 yards — are a reminder that a quarterback is so often the function of the team around him.
The Eagles made Foles’ life easier with spotless protection and well-defined throws after halftime. Ajayi’s long play came on a second-straight screen pass, which the Falcons didn’t anticipate coming.
The Eagles didn’t dominate on the ground, but so many of Foles’ best plays came on run-pass options where Atlanta loaded up to stop Philadelphia’s three-headed backfield of Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. Eagles coach Doug Pederson emptied out the playbook, using a misdirection handoff to receiver Nelson Agholor that seemed straight out of a Single Wing Offense playbook. Philadelphia’s lone touchdown came after going for it on fourth down from the 1-yard line. Despite being the NFC’s top seed, the Eagles played like a team that knew it needed to do a little extra to come out on top.
“I got no problem with being an underdog. Ain’t no pressure. They expect us to lose anyway. Why not ball out?” cornerback Ronald Darby said.
The pressure is only going to mount on Sarkisian in Atlanta after only scoring 10 points in this playoff loss and choosing not to run once after facing first-and-season from the 9-yard line. It was striking in the Eagles locker room how the team just assumed the Falcons were not going to run on the final play of the game.
After suffering perhaps the most heartbreaking defeat in Super Bowl history, this Falcons team seemed to chase the ghost of the 2016 Falcons offense all year. It was fitting that it was the team’s offense, even their best two players, that couldn’t quite connect on the key play of the game. Quinn’s defense made huge strides late in the season, but Sarkisian failed to help get his receivers open like his predecessor Kyle Shanahan.
“We are a much better offense than we showed, for sure,” Jones said. “Everybody is always talking about last year, this year, this and that. … Everybody has to be on the same page and it takes time.”
It’s worth noting that the stories over the next week would be so much different if the Falcons were just one play better. We’d hear about their mental toughness and defensive prowess. But on a weird evening that included four Eagles fumbles, a punt block, a Foles completion that bounced off Falcons safety Keanu Neal‘s knee and a temperamental wind that knocked down deep passes and punts, the game did come down to one play.
And the Eagles knew the play before the ball was ever snapped.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” Darby said. “It’s like something from a movie.”
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.