Falcons Gain Early-Season Momentum With Wild Win Over Eagles

This time Julio Jones didn’t wait for the Falcons to get in the red zone. This time, on fourth-and-three from the wrong side of midfield, Matt Ryan took the snap, turned left, threw a laser to his all-world receiver at the line of scrimmage, then just watched him sprint 54 yards for a touchdown. This time they came out on top.

The Eagles and Falcons met on a primetime stage for the third time in 20 months. In the third installment, a sometimes ugly game full of injuries and interceptions, Atlanta came away victorious.

Philly had won the previous two matchups between these teams—the divisional round playoff game that began their Super Bowl run, and the NFL’s kickoff game when they hung their banner the following year. Each time the Eagles clung to a lead, they let the Falcons march down to the goal line and fought to keep Jones out of the end zone.

Sunday night’s game again came down to a last-minute, fourth-down stop in the red zone—but the roles were reversed. Carson Wentz completed a pass to Zach Ertz, who stretched for the first-down marker but came up inches short. Falcons 24, Eagles 20. Game over.

As the wild fourth quarter played out, the Eagles looked to have stolen a game, before the Falcons grabbed it back.

Honestly, it is a wonder the Eagles were in this game at all. They lost Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Dallas Goedert to injuries. They had offensive linemen and defensive linemen visit the medical tent. They lost their kick returner and briefly their quarterback. When Ertz hit the turf on the final drive, they had literally run out of tight ends. He stayed in the game, only thanks to an injury timeout.

Wentz was not sharp. Likely related, he took multiple shots to his chest and ribs. The Falcons pounded him early and often, holding him to a first-half stat line of 6-for-16 for 47 yards and two interceptions.

But he and his spare-parts offense battled back. One minute Josh McCown was taking snaps, the next minute Wentz was not just back in the huddle but diving all over the field. When the Eagles scored a third-quarter touchdown to get within 17-12, he dove into the end zone for a two-point conversion, only to see it taken away on review. When the Eagles had a third-and-one at the 3-yard-line in the fourth quarter, he dove ahead for the first down. On the very next play, he dove into the end zone for a touchdown.

Then Jones happened. It is very hard to determine who the best wide receiver in football is right now—there are simply too many great ones—but it’s safe to say that Julio recently became the most handsomely-paid for good reason.

Ryan struggled when the Eagles got pressure and lofted up three interceptions, but he also took advantage of Philly's exploitable secondary on multiple deep balls. On a night when no Falcon ran for more than 32 yards, he found Calvin Ridley eight times for 105 yards and a touchdown. Jones finished with five grabs for 106 yards and two TDs. And on the most important play of the game, Ryan got rid of it quickly and let his team’s best weapon do the rest. 

Wentz, for his part, was nearly the hero anyway. (At one point he escaped the pass rush and did this.) He answered the long Jones touchdown with a deep rainbow to Nelson Agholor. It should have been an easy 60-yard touchdown to steal the game (yet again), until it went through Agholor’s hands. A few plays later, on fourth-and-14, Agholor caught a much more difficult ball in traffic for a 43-yard gain to keep the game alive. That set up the completion to Ertz, and the textbook game-saving tackle by Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver. (There are a lot of fourth downs to keep track of here. I told you it was wild.)

We should not overstate the importance of a Week 2 game, but we can also acknowledge that this was indeed an important one. This is the week we begin to see those stats—you practically know them by heart now—about the odds of a 2-0 or 0-2 team making the playoffs. Pro Football Reference tells us that since the NFL instituted its current playoff format in 2002, teams that start 0-2 make it only 11.4% of the time. (The Seahawks and Texans both did it last year, but still.)

This was a particularly important win for Atlanta because what looked like a deep NFC South might be even more winnable than we initially thought in August. On Thursday night the Panthers dropped to 0-2, and serious questions about the health and play of former MVP Cam Newton loom. Earlier Sunday, the Saints not only fell to the Rams but lost their Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees to a hand injury. We can’t speculate on the severity of the injury yet, but if he misses significant time, we know what that does to the Saints’ ceiling. The Falcons are now in a position to capitalize in a way they simply wouldn’t if they were licking their wounds at 0-2.

So yes, it’s only Week 2, but this one mattered. The NFC is deep, with more contenders than can fit in one six-team playoff bracket. The Falcons had a lot of questions to answer after they were manhandled by Minnesota last week. Then they were home underdogs and let a lead slip away against a team that’s had their number in recent seasons. But they pulled out a gusty win, and now there’s nobody above them in the NFC South. Now the Eagles will have to answer a few questions, put the MRI machine to good use and regroup.

Things change quickly in this league. We got a few examples Sunday, including a wild fourth quarter in the nightcap.


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