The Eagles have already advanced further in the postseason than many expected. Without their MVP-caliber quarterback Carson Wentz, the Eagles were underdogs at home and the pick by most analysts to bow out of the playoffs early. None of that happened Saturday, and what unfolded instead was a lesson on the best reasons the Eagles can play like exactly what they are — the 13-3 number one seed in the NFC — and reach and win the Super Bowl.
Offensively and defensively, the Eagles bossed Atlanta around for four quarters Saturday night. The score remained close because of fumbles and the Eagles being held to field goals in the red zone, but the yards tell a different story. The Eagles outgained their opponents 334-281. They were able to stay on the field and keep the ball away from the Falcons’ offense, winning overall time of possession 32:06 to 27:54 despite running just four more plays.
Staying on the field was particularly effective in the second half. Though both scoring drives ended in field goals, the Eagles gained 154 yards and used up 13:39 of clock time on their way to the difference-making six points. Their last drive with the football used up almost eight minutes before handing the football back to Atlanta with a field goal attempt off the table.
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The Eagles were able to play this way thanks to their performance at the line of scrimmage. Four of Pro Football Focus’ five highest rated Eagles Saturday were linemen. The offensive and defensive lines in Philadelphia have been heralded for years, and Saturday they lived up to the hype in their first postseason opportunity.
Offensively, they protected Nick Foles impeccably, allowing just one sack and allowing Foles to get in rhythm with his receivers, something the team hadn’t seen in recent weeks. They may have averaged just three yards running the football, but there were athletic blocks all over the screen game that allowed the Eagles some of their biggest gains. LeGarrette Blount is more than capable of steamrolling defenders, but he didn’t have to as the offensive line sealed off his fourth down touchdown run. To quote Lane Johnson, they “ran the ball efficiently when they needed to.”
Defensively the line did exactly what it has all season: dominated their opponent. Matt Ryan had been sacked just 24 times during the regular season, but the Eagles got to him three times and pressured him several more. Brandon Graham had a key tackle for a loss on the final drive and when Ryan threw his final incompletion to Julio Jones in the end zone he was running to the sideline for his life.
The Eagles have been better than their opponents up front all season, and there is no reason to expect that to stop now.
Defense Wins Championships
The defense was a force the entire game, but go back to that final play with the season on the line one more time. The path to the Eagles success stopping the Falcons started well before the ball was snapped. To hear several of the players tell it after the game, they knew exactly what was coming.
"We probably had three guys calling out the play on that one just based on our preparation, our study,” said Malcolm Jenkins,“They changed to a 21 personnel, two backs in the game. We were pretty confident that they’d probably move the pocket on that type of play and we recognized the formation as soon as they lined up in it."
The communication came from both safeties, even if the fans involvement made it a little hard to hear.
“I tried to tell Nigel [Bradham] to go down and pull it up because the tight end usually just blocks. We needed an extra player over there,” Rodney McLeod said.
And when it came to the battle in the end zone with Julio Jones: “knowing that as a corner, you need to be physical with 11. He’s going to try to run at you so you push off. So for Jalen, that’s what he did.”
What he (and the rest of the secondary) did all night was contain Jones, who finished with nine catches for 101 yards. A gaudy statline, but he never took the top off the defense, and neither did any other Falcon for that matter. The explosive offense featuring 2016 MVP Ryan never had a play longer than 24 yards on the night and scored their lone touchdown on a short field following a botched punt return.
The Eagles defense has been resilient all season, surviving injuries to Ronald Darby and Jordan Hicks, and they were resilient Saturday, bouncing back from a fourth down conversion by Jones on that final drive. They’ve been dominant all season, they were dominant Saturday, and with all due respect to Michael Thomas, the Saints running backs, and Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, they won’t face another offensive threat like Jones unless they’re in the Super Bowl.
They’re both Underdogs and Favorites
The Eagles were the first one-seed ever favored to lose against a six-seed this weekend. It won’t surprise anyone if they are underdogs again against the winner of the Vikings-Saints game despite hosting the NFC Championship Game. In some ways, the Eagles are getting the best of both worlds.
They feel justly disrespected following a 13-3 season, tied for the best record and the highest point differential in the NFL. Across every sport there’s a long history of the underdog role being used to provide teams motivation and it was on full display in Philadelphia Saturday.
Usually a team relishing the underdog role is squeaking into the playoffs as a wildcard, playing every game on the road, relying on a streak of hot football. The Eagles got to rest through a bye, play in front of a crowd that had the ground shaking on fourth and goal at the Linc, and can fall back on the confidence gained by knowing they’ve already played the best football in the NFL through 16 games.
Pederson said it best: “that locker room in there is united and I'll go to bat for every one of those guys and I'll go to war with every one of those guys in that dressing room.”