Eagles stifle Falcons to reach NFC championship game

(Getty Images)

Philadelphia's offense was not impressive, but the Eagles defense was as they overcame the Atlanta Falcons 15-10 in the NFL divisional round. The Eagles shut down Atlanta's potent offense and earned a berth in next week's NFC championship game following Saturday's triumph at Lincoln Financial Field.

Atlanta (11-7) were actually favoured to knock off the NFC's top seed, because the Eagles offense has sputtered since starting quarterback Carson Wentz tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a week 14 win over the Los Angeles Rams.  However, Atlanta's eighth-ranked offense that averaged nearly 365 yards per game was held to 281 yards by the Eagles on Saturday.

"That's a really good Atlanta team we beat and everybody's excited," Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox told NBC Sports. "We got a big team win. We'll be ready for next week." With the win, the Eagles (14-3) will host next week's NFC title game against either the New Orleans Saints or the Minnesota Vikings, who play on Sunday.

Despite a shaky start that included running back Jay Ajayi fumbling on his first carry and two poorly thrown passes by Nick Foles, the Eagles settled down and implemented Doug Pederson's superb game plan. Foles, whose struggles over the final two weeks of the regular season were a big reason the Eagles were home underdogs, finished 23 of 30 for 246 yards with completions to eight different players. He completed just one pass thrown beyond 15 yards as Pederson used a variety of short throws to build his quarterback's confidence.

From there, the Eagles receivers did a great job of getting yards after the catch. Alshon Jeffery was the top receiver with four catches for 61 yards while rookie running back Corey Clement led the team with five receptions for 31 yards. Ajayi, who ran for 54 yards, caught three passes for 44 yards. Foles did get lucky as the Eagles got a field goal to make it a 10-9 Falcons lead before half-time thanks to a fortunate deflection. A Foles pass went off the knee of a leaping Keanu Neal and the ball caromed back to Eagles receiver Torrey Smith. 

"We just kept believing in each other. That was it. Our team never wavered," Foles told NBC Sports. "Defense did an amazing job. Special teams. That's been the story this year. We all stuck together and believed we could move the ball."

The Eagles sacked Matt Ryan three times, but even when the Falcons quarterback had time, he was locked in on either Julio Jones or Mohamed Sanu. When the Falcons reached the Super Bowl last season, they did so largely because Ryan did an incredible job of spreading the ball around. He failed to find his second read on Saturday as 21 of his 36 pass attempts were to either Jones or Sanu. Jones finished with nine catches for 101 yards on 16 targets while Sanu had three receptions for 50 yards on five targets. 

Ryan's final pass, on a fourth-and-goal from the two, was incomplete as he tried to force it to Jones in the corner of the end zone.

Taylor Gabriel, who had two catches for four yards, was the only other Falcons receiver with more than one target. Ryan's best pass may have been an improvisational throw as the Falcons capitalised on an Eagles turnover to take a 10-6 lead in the second quarter. 

A muffed punt, which bounced off the feet of at least two Eagles players, led to a Falcons touchdown. Ryan did his best Brett Favre impression to spin away from pressure before lobbing a short pass to a crossing Devonta Freeman for a six-yard score.  Ryan was the 2016 NFL MVP because he made plays like that, but he was not nearly as productive in 2017 and was hamstrung by play calling and the Eagles defence on Saturday. 

While Foles did not turn the ball over on Saturday, he also did not throw a touchdown pass and did little to instil much confidence in Philadelphia's offence. The Eagles' defence is among the league's best, but the Vikings have the NFL's top defence and the Saints defence ranks third with 20 interceptions.

Whether it is the Vikings or the Saints, the Eagles defence might be on the field too much and the game could get away from Philadelphia despite the benefit of home-field advantage.