By Kevin McGuire
The Philadelphia Eagles are heading to the NFC Championship Game after beating the Atlanta Falcons in a hard-fought 15-10 victory at Lincoln Financial Field. Despite being the top seed in the NFC playoffs, the Eagles were a home underdog against the defending NFC champions. Nick Foles is still a far cry from Carson Wentz at quarterback, but he overcame a shaky beginning and managed to avoid making any critical mistakes, just as needed.
Here's how the grades came in for the playoff victory.
Nick Foles completed 23 of 30 passes and took just one sack, but he was off the mark on some key throws and was without a touchdown pass. He did come up with a crucial fumble recovery just outside the goal line though, which led to three points for the Eagles. The running game thrived at times with Jay Ajayi rushing 15 times for 54 yards, and the Eagles mixed things up with the running game by getting Nelson Agholor involved at times. There is still some work to do with cleaning up how the offense runs with Foles at the helm, but that never came back to haunt them in this game, thanks largely in part to the job of the defense.
The only touchdown scored by Atlanta came in the second quarter after a special teams gaffe gave Atlanta the football deep in the red zone. And just when it looked as though the defense would get off the field, a costly penalty gave the Falcons a fresh first down and Matt Ryan made a miraculous play to keep a play alive for a touchdown. Julio Jones was nearly unstoppable, which was to be expected, but the Eagles defense earned the win by preventing Atlanta from making enough big plays. The Eagles got the game-deciding fourth-down stop in the final minutes just outside the end zone.
Special Teams: B
The major blemish on the night was a punt return mistake when a punted ball hit an Eagles player in the foot and then hit another player that was blocking. Atlanta recovered the ball and scored a touchdown moments later. The return game had little impact, which has generally been the case for much of the season. Jake Elliott missed his lone extra point attempt too, but he made up for it with a clutch 54-yard field goal toward the end of the first half to cut the Atlanta lead to 10-9. Elliott was three-for-three on field goal attempts for a crucial nine points. Punter Donnie Jones remained steady with two punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Doug Pederson had to have a mistake-free day on the sideline, and he may have gotten it. Pederson mixed in a few new wrinkles with the offense, which was essential to allow Nick Foles to keep his composure. The first series for the Eagles was a disaster, but the rust and nerves were knocked off and Pederson kept the offense on the same page to work the clock and keep some drives rolling with the run-pass-option for Foles. Pederson's use of timeouts was fantastic in the fourth quarter as well, and his decision to throw the challenge flag put Atlanta in a fourth down spot near midfield (the Falcons converted for a first down, but it was a challenge that should have been made and it worked out). Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz should also be given props for the way the defense played as well, holding the Falcons to just 10 points.
Up Next: The Eagles will host the NFC Championship Game next week. All that is left to determine is the opponent. That will be either the Minnesota Vikings or the New Orleans Saints. The Eagles have not played either team this season, so the matchup will be a fresh one for both teams involved.
The Eagles are 2-2-3 all-time at home in the NFC Championship Game. Whoever the opponent ends up being, the defense will have to carry over this performance and Foles and the running game will have to avoid critical mistakes if the Eagles are going to make an improbable run to the Super Bowl.
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