PHILADELPHIA –Fly Eagles Fly.
With the wind and against it.
With Nick Foles engineering several long drives, Jake Elliott converting three field goals, and the defense getting stingy in the tightest spot, Philadelphia moved into the NFC championship game with a 15-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday.
Foles directed brilliant marches of 74 and 80 yards in the second half – one into the whipping wind, the other with it – and Elliott atoned for missing an extra point by converting from 53 yards at the end of the second quarter, 37 and 21 in the second half. Then the Eagles (14-3) held when Atlanta (11-7) got to the 9-yard line with a first down, and to the 2 on fourth down.
When Matt Ryan’s final pass sailed over Julio Jones’ head in the end zone , Philly could celebrate its first playoff victory since the 2008 season.
Next Sunday, the Eagles will host either Minnesota or New Orleans for the conference crown. The Eagles last made the Super Bowl in the 2004 season, losing to New England.
“I mean, we just kept believing in each other,” said Foles, who became the starter when Carson Wentz, a leading MVP contender, injured his knee in December. “That was it. Our team never wavered, defense did an amazing job, special teams – that’s just been the story this year is that we just all stuck together…”
Foles finished a very efficient outing by going 23 of 30 for 246 yards.
The Falcons, of course, memorably blew a 28-3 second-half lead to the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl. They will not get the opportunity to atone for it, though Ryan got them close at the end. Jones had nine receptions for 101 yards, and Ryan was 22 of 36 for 210 yards on a difficult day to throw.
Despite being underdogs as the No. 1 seed, the Eagles showed plenty of moxie.
A masterful 74-yard, 12-play drive on which Foles was 5 for 6 for 70 yards – the only incompletion was Jay Ajayi’s drop – led to Elliott’s 37-yard kick into the wind that made it 12-10.
The Eagles put together their best drive, an 80-yarder covering 14 plays, yet again faltered close to the end zone. Elliott added a 21-yarder with 6:02 remaining after coach Doug Pederson briefly considered going for it on fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 3.
Then, as the fans in the Linc held their breath, the Eagles held deep in their territory.
“Man, just stay calm,” said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who was a force all day. “We always talk about that. We’ve been in those situations during the regular season, so we kind of know how to handle those situations, not try to make a play but let the play come to us.”
And the road to the Super Bowl remains through Philly.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn could have opted to take the wind in the fourth quarter after deferring on the opening coin toss. Instead, he took the ball to start the second half, but it was the Eagles who got the only points of the third period.
And in the end, Atlanta had to deal with the currents on that final drive, which included a 20-yard completion to Jones on fourth-and-6.
Mistakes hurt the Eagles in the opening half. Ajayi’s fumble and a misplayed punt that bounced off Bryan Braman led to all 10 Atlanta points.
Things began nicely for Philadelphia when safety Brian Poole was tagged with pass interference on a deep pass by Foles that was held up by the wind. But Ajayi fumbled on the next play with Keanu Neal recovering.
Atlanta efficiently mixed runs and passes to drive to Matt Bryant’s 33-yard field goal for an early lead.
That was it for most of the opening quarter, though Philadelphia got the run game going with Ajayi in the final moments. Then, with the wind, the Eagles kept the Falcons off-balance so much Atlanta took two timeouts in three plays.
Receiver Nelson Agholor’s 21-yard run got the ball to the 3, and Foles botched a handoff to Corey Clement. But the quarterback quickly dived on the loose ball and was ruled to have scored before replay showed him down short of the goal line.
Pederson showed no hesitation going for it, and Blount surged in from the 1. Elliott’s missed extra point left it 6-3.
Soon after came Matt Bosher’s punt that took a wicked bounce and hit Braman while he was blocking. From the Philly 18, the Falcons benefited from two penalties before Ryan scrambled from pressure and found Devonta Freeman for a 6-yard TD and a 10-3 lead.
With 46 seconds left in the half, the hosts got lucky. Foles’ errant pass ricocheted off Neal’s hands to Torrey Smith for 20 yards. Alshon Jeffery made a long stretch to haul in another throw with 1 second remaining, and Elliott’s 53-yard field goal just made it over the crossbar.
Philadelphia will host either Minnesota or New Orleans next Sunday night for the NFC title.
Atlanta’s season ends after a wild-card berth and a win at Los Angeles before Saturday’s defeat.