The underdog Philadelphia Eagles are heading to the NFC championship game following a 15-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday. They’ll host the Saints-Vikings winner next Sunday.
Despite going 13-3 to earn the No. 1 seed, the Eagles entered the game as 3-point underdogs against the sixth-seeded Falcons (11-7). They used it as motivation and now it’s onto the next one as they continue pursuit of the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.
”If we believe the outsiders, we will be all messed up,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. ”We went out and proved we can be the real winning team.”
Matt Ryan’s final pass sailed through Julio Jones’ arms in the corner of the end zone as Jalen Mills had tight coverage on fourth down from the 2 to secure Philadelphia’s win. It was another disappointing finish for the Falcons, who blew a 25-point lead against the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl.
”The reason I play this game is to win a championship,” Ryan said. ”That’s why we put all of the hard work we put in. When you don’t get that result, it’s difficult.”
Foles outplayed Ryan, bouncing back from a pair of subpar games with an efficient performance. He completed 77 percent of his passes (23 of 30) for 246 yards, no touchdowns and no turnovers.
”The biggest thing in our locker room is that we believe in one another and that showed,” Foles said. ”We kept working, kept grinding, had faith in one another. In any sport there’s going to be criticism. You’re aware of it because you’re human but we blocked it out.”
Here’s some things we learned following Philadelphia’s first playoff win in nine years:
OVERCOMING TURNOVERS: The Eagles committed the only two turnovers and won anyway. Jay Ajayi fumbled on the second play from scrimmage inside Falcons territory and a short punt bounced off an Eagles player setting up Atlanta’s 18-yard touchdown drive.
INCONSISTENT OFFENSE: These weren’t the Falcons who lit up the scoreboard on their way to winning the NFC championship last year. Under first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons weren’t quite as sharp throughout the season and their inconsistency showed up at the wrong time. They were shut out in the second half and held to just 118 yards in the final two quarters.
”I think that’s something we have to look at and evaluate this offseason,” Ryan said. ”There were too many times we were a little bit inconsistent.”
JAY TRAIN: Ajayi shook off the fumble and ran well until he inexplicably went to the bench for a long stretch. Ajayi had 50 yards rushing on eight carries through Philadelphia’s first drive of the second quarter, but didn’t get the ball again until the second half. He finished with 54 yards on 15 carries and also dropped a third down pass. He did have 44 yards receiving on three catches.
”I feel like I played poorly,” Ajayi said. ”The fumble, can’t do that in a big game. I feel like I could have executed a lot better. A lot of the teammates picked up the slack. The defense played lights out.”
CALL OF THE GAME: Eagles coach Doug Pederson ran an inside counter to wide receiver Nelson Agholor that went for 21 yards to the Falcons 3 on third-and-3 on Philadelphia’s touchdown drive. It was the first time he called that play this season.
”It’s a play we’ve had in our arsenal, but never got to it,” Pederson said. ”This was just an opportunity to put it in Nelson’s hands with Lane Johnson as a puller and just executed extremely well.”
JAKE’S LEG: Elliott, who joined the Eagles after Caleb Sturgis was injured in Week 1, bounced back after missing his fourth extra point of the season by connecting on all three of his field goals. His 53-yarder at the end of the first half was his sixth in seven tries from beyond 50. That includes a game-winning 61-yarder against the Giants in Week 3.
”It was definitely tricky out there, just really gusty (wind) Ed Dickson Color Rush Jersey ,” Elliott said. ”You don’t know what it’s really going to do out there so you just have to hit the best ball you can and take care of what you can control.”
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner contributed.
AP NFL website: Doug Pederson is one win away from bringing Philadelphia the elusive Super Bowl title his mentor couldn’t deliver.
If the Eagles (15-3) beat New England (15-3) on Sunday, Pederson will hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy and Philadelphia will celebrate its first NFL title since beating Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in 1960.
No one saw this coming two years ago.
After abruptly firing Chip Kelly, Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie longed for a coach more like the one he used to have: Andy Reid. Even though Reid failed to win the big game during his 14-year tenure in Philadelphia, he won more games than any coach in franchise history and led the Eagles to nine playoff appearances, five NFC title games and a Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.
Reid also had a close relationship with Lurie, was well-liked by the players and instilled a family atmosphere. That culture was an important element for Lurie. The environment had changed under Kelly, who was 26-21 in three seasons. Though he was an innovative coach, Kelly didn’t connect well with all his players and members of the organization.
So Lurie went back to what he knew and hired Pederson, Reid’s protege.
Lurie was quite familiar with Pederson, who was a quarterback for Reid with the Eagles in 1999 and then an assistant coach on his staff in Philadelphia and Kansas City.
Other coaches had more impressive resumes, but Lurie liked Pederson’s intangibles.
”I spent a lot of time with players at the end of that (2015) season and I thought what was really needed was a kind of leadership that leads with a genuineness, a real genuineness,” Lurie said. ”And people laughed when I used the term `emotional intelligence,’ but that’s probably a really good way to describe it.
”There’s a lot of great coaches. They all have their different styles, but the one common ground among them all is absolute consistency and genuineness. And Doug Pederson is just himself. And at times that’s very humble, and at times it’s just very real. At times that’s very bright. At times it’s tough. But he does it in a true, genuine way and I think players really respond to that in today’s world.”
Naturally, Pederson learned from Reid.
”Being around him, he’s the same day in and day out,” Pederson said. ”Same consistency. Same work ethic.”
Like Reid, Pederson had his share of critics. He wasn’t the people’s choice in Philly when he got the job and ESPN ranked him the worst hire of his coaching class at the time. Three of the six other coaches already have been fired.
”I don’t pay any attention to that, quite honestly Barkevious Mingo Color Rush Jersey ,” Pederson said. ”I drive home at night knowing I put in a full day’s work. I get up in the morning to come in here, and however I can serve this organization and serve these players, that’s all I know. I love football. I love coaching football. I love teaching it. I love being around these guys, and I’m going to pour my life into these players. If it’s good enough, great, because that’s all I know I can do and I’ve given it my best effort. So I don’t care about what’s written.”
Pederson cares about his players, improving their game and making them better men off the field. He gets what they’re going through because he played, although mostly as a backup. They trust in him and his coaching philosophy.
”Coach Pederson is an unbelievable coach to play for,” said Nick Foles, who went from backup quarterback to hero of the NFC championship game. ”He just has such a great feel for the game.”
Pederson’s steady demeanor and positive approach helped the team overcome numerous injuries to key players, including Carson Wentz, Jason Peters and Jordan Hicks.
Seeing their coach never waver gave guys confidence they can beat anyone. It helps that Pederson has devised masterful game plans. He outcoached Mike Zimmer in the NFC championship game as Foles picked apart the top-ranked defense en route to Philadelphia’s 38-7 win over Minnesota .
”I played for some amazing coaches, and Doug is an unbelievable play caller,” Foles said. ”He does a great job of deciding when to call each thing, but our staff is unbelievable at game planning and putting us in position, no matter if it’s the run game, the pass game, the screen game, whatever it may be. The attention to detail is unbelievable and we go into a game feeling 100 percent confident because of our staff and the work and long hours that they put in to get the game plan to us so that we can go out and execute. That’s big for an athlete when you can go out there and trust everything.”