Eagles Survive the Falcons, but Can They Survive QB Nick Foles?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 13, 2018

Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles in action during the first half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

The Eagles have the defense to win a Super Bowl.

"Defense wins championships," safety Malcolm Jenkins said after the Eagles pounded out a 15-10 victory over the Falcons on Saturday to advance to the NFC title game. "We say it all the time. It's a cliche. But it's true."

"Today was a good day for us and we battled until the end," added defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

The Eagles have the running game to win a Super Bowl.

"The O-line did a great job today getting push off the ball," said Jay Ajayi, who finished with 98 yards from scrimmage on 18 runs and screen passes. "As running backs, we just had to run hard."

The Eagles have the coaching, communication and solidarity to win the Super Bowl.

"We have such a great coaching staff that prepares everybody," said receiver Nelson Agholor after a game where the Eagles were always one strategic step ahead of their opponent on both sides of the ball.

"And we have such great guys. We all jell together. We prepare together. We're in sync."

Now, about the quarterback.

Nick Foles completed 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions and very little to assuage fears among the Philly faithful that the Eagles are advancing in the postseason despite Foles, not because of him.

Foles spent the first half coping with a stiff breeze from the northeast that sent all of his deep throws sailing over receivers' heads and toward the Philadelphia Navy Yard. When Foles wasn't overthrowing wide-open tight end Trey Burton on a deep corner route on third down to kill one drive, he was botching the handoff exchange with LeGarrette Blount to quash another one, or fumbling on the 2-yard line but pouncing on it to avoid disaster.

Foles' biggest passing "highlight" of the game was an overthrow that ricocheted off the body of leaping safety Keanu Neal and into the alert hands of Torrey Smith for a first down just before halftime. It was like Marcus Mariota's self-touchdown of a week ago, minus the style points.

Foles looked at times like the one person standing between the Eagles and the Super Bowl.

As you might expect, his teammates and coaches felt differently.

"He's a great quarterback," Agholor said. "He prepares well. He's ready. No moment's too big for him."

"Nick did a helluva job," added Alshon Jeffery.

"Nick is Nick," head coach Doug Pederson said. "He did a really nice job executing the game plan how we—and how I—know Nick can."

Receivers aren't going to criticize their quarterback after a playoff win. And Pederson's "Nick is Nick" remarks weren't exactly gushing praise. We can be polite and talk about poise, composure, effort and decision-making—all traits Foles possesses in abundance—but it's obvious that he is not a "great" quarterback by NFL playoff standards. And while the stats looked OK at the end of the game, he did something a little less than a "helluva job."

Luckily, Pederson and his staff out-planned and out-schemed the Falcons coaches.

Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery is the biggest difference-maker for this team.
Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery is the biggest difference-maker for this team.Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Pederson stuck with an all-Ajayi diet early in the game, overlooking the running back's early fumble and feeding him eight carries and a screen pass for 59 yards in the first half, mixing in a cleverly designed misdirection run to Agholor to set up a one-yard Blount touchdown in the second quarter.

"I knew I would get my number called a good amount of times," Ajayi said. "And it's all about executing when you get your number called."

Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich then had the perfect play call for when Smith caught that tip drill in the waning seconds of the half. Jeffery caught a 15-yard dart from Foles and stepped out of bounds at the Falcons' 35-yard line with just one second left, setting up a 53-yard Jake Elliott field goal. The play was reminiscent of the sideline pass that set up Elliott's 61-yard game-winner against the Giants in the regular season.

"That's just something that we practice all the time," Jeffery said. "Nelson was wide open too."

"Situational football wins games," Agholor said, "It's a tribute to our coaching staff. They do a great job putting us in position."

The final series of the game was also a tribute to the Eagles coaching staff. Needing a touchdown to take the lead in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, the Falcons did what they have done all too often this season: marched straight into the red zone and started tripping over their own game plan.

Eagles defenders said after the game they knew exactly what was coming on the Falcons' final fourth-down play.

"We were confident that they would try to move the pocket on that last play," Jenkins said. "We recognized the formation as soon as they lined up in it. We took away the first two reads he had on the sprint-out, and then he was just scrambling to make a play and tossing one up."

"Everybody was calling out the sprint," Philadelphia defensive end Brandon Graham said. "Everybody knew what was coming."

"It was just great communication, all the way from the right side of the field to the left" said cornerback Jalen Mills, who ultimately swatted Ryan's toss-up away from a leaping Julio Jones.

The Eagles defense played with that level of preparation, communication and energy for the entire game. Atlanta's only touchdown drive came when a Matt Bosher punt into the wind after a stalled drive took a wild bounce and caromed off an Eagles special teamer, setting up a short-field drive consisting of defensive penalties and an improvisational Ryan floater to running back Devonta Freeman after an escape from the pocket.

Jay Ajayi led the Eagles in rushing on the way to the NFC Championship Game.
Jay Ajayi led the Eagles in rushing on the way to the NFC Championship Game.Michael Perez/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Eagles held the Falcons running backs to just 86 yards on 20 carries. Ryan finished with 210 yards and three sacks, plus his own set of overthrows and underthrows in the gusty, chilly conditions. Jones caught nine passes for 101 yards, including a 20-yard fourth-down reception late in the fourth quarter to set up the Falcons' doomed goal-line adventure, but the Eagles bottled up the rest of Ryan's receiving corps.

While the Falcons flailed for most of the game, the Eagles made adjustments to their opponent and the conditions, cranking out a pair of sausage-grinder field-goal drives of 74 and 80 yards. Several of the most important plays in those drives were run-pass options: fakes by Foles to Ajayi, followed by quick passes to Jeffery and other receivers.

"Because we were able to run the ball, the defense had to respect that," Ajayi said. "The play action is obviously going to bring those guys up, and those are easier throws."

That's Football Strategy 101, but the Falcons didn't have an answer for it when the Eagles transitioned from Ajayi runs to Ajayi play-action.

So the running game set up the tactics that put the defense in position to win the game with the help of some tactical advantages of their own.

But again, what about the quarterback?

You can't execute run-pass options without the option of "passing." Foles may have benefited from a pinball bounce on Smith's catch, but he followed it with that pinpoint strike to Jeffery. He may have been launching weather balloons on his second-quarter throws with the wind at his back, but he fired fastballs to Jeffery, Zach Ertz and others against the wind on drives that broke the Falcons' backs.

"Nick came out and threw the ball great," Cox said. "He got into a good rhythm in the second half, and that really helped him out."

Again, "great" may be too strong a word. Foles will have to be a whole lot better to get the Eagles to the Super Bowl.

But he wouldn't be the first quarterback—or the worst quarterback—to "game manager" his way to a Super Bowl for a team that has this much going for it.

"I think Nick's comfortable with the fact that we're just out here trying to win football games," Agholor said. "He's a competitor. Nick's gonna do whatever it takes to win football games."

For a team with a defense, running game and coaching staff this good, Foles shouldn't have to do more than make a few plays, take care of the football and prove he is not a liability.

He proved on Saturday he can do that.

Barely.

         

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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