“Trust me, I get it,” Eagles quarterback Nick Foles told NBC’s Mike Tirico before Saturday’s game when asked about his recent struggles replacing Carson Wentz.
“Too much thinking ... I play best when I react, when I see and I trust my instincts.”
Those words rang true on Saturday as Foles overcame a horrid start to methodically chip away at Atlanta’s defense and do just enough to get the Eagles to the NFC championship game. Philadelphia, the first no. 1 seed underdog in divisional round history, toppled last year’s NFC champions 15-10 on Saturday using a combination of stellar defensive play and a quarterback who did exactly what was asked of him. Foles, who finished the game with 23 completions on 30 passing attempts for 246 yards, may not have led the Eagles to victory, but he made the victory possible by sticking to Philadelphia’s game plan, making correct reads, and executing his assignments. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
The Eagles knew that they’d need to establish a run game early against the Falcons—that would limit Atlanta’s pass rush and allow Foles the opportunity for more short passes and easy reads—and they’d need a dominant performance from their defense. That plan didn’t get off to a great start. On the very first play of the game, Foles launched a pass to receiver Torrey Smith, who had two steps on the Atlanta secondary, but the pass was a good 10 yards short and was nearly intercepted.
A pass interference call bailed Philly out, but a Jay Ajayi fumble on the next play served as karmic balance. On the the team’s second drive, Foles was even shakier, putting too much zip on a pass to tight end Zach Ertz, then fumbling an exchange with running back LeGarrette Blount. The Eagles recovered the fumble but were forced to punt. After two drives, all the Foles doubters out there felt smug.
Then, something strange happened: Philly’s game plan came to fruition. The Eagles got the ball down 3-0 with just over two minutes left in the first quarter, and the run game came roaring to life. Ajayi started the drive with three-straight runs of 7-plus yards and a 9-yard catch, then Blount added an 8-yard run. The seemingly hapless Eagles offense eventually strung together a 14-play, 86-yard touchdown drive (albeit with a missed extra point) to take a 6-3 lead.
After that successful drive and with the run game fully established, the Eagles’ desired playbook opened up. Foles settled into a routine of screens, short passes, and run-pass options, and he became increasingly comfortable in the pocket, consistently making the right reads and stringing together first downs.
The Eagles offense only managed to put 15 points on the board, but that was enough for Philly’s defense, who held Atlanta’s once-vaunted offense to just 281 total yards and 10 points via a field goal on their opening drive and a touchdown after a muffed punt that the Falcons recovered at the Eagles’ 18-yard line. Excluding that muffed punt, the Falcons only crossed the Eagles’ 40-yard line on the opening and closing possessions of the game, the latter of which ended in a Philly goal-line stand to close out the victory and send the Eagles to their first NFC championship game in a decade.
Philly relied on staunch defense and a calm and collected Foles to grind out an ugly win. Foles’s performance wasn’t sexy––he overthrew receivers and the Falcons’ defense dropped some potential interceptions. But Foles didn’t need to be Carson Wentz: Philly needed him to be efficient and follow the plan, and he did just that. Now the Eagles have a shot at soaring to the Super Bowl.