A party and a dramatic win—all in a day's work for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Jay Ajayi put the Eagles ahead with an 11-yard touchdown run in the final three minutes, and Philadelphia's defense held strong on the game's final play after an illegal contact penalty gave the Falcons one more chance from its 5-yard line. Matt Ryan threw a ball up for grabs for Julio Jones, and he came down with it but was well out of bounds.
Eagles Can't Get Wentz Back Soon Enough
Nick Foles will forever be a champion and a Philadelphia legend for his three-game playoff stretch, but the 2018 Eagles need Carson Wentz healthy if they are going to lift the Lombardi Trophy again.
Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported it will be "a few more weeks" until he returns from the torn ACL he suffered in December 2017, as the Eagles are using an abundance of caution with their franchise signal-caller.
The caution will prove beneficial long term, but he was sorely missed Thursday as Foles went 19-of-34 for 117 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception.
Foles dropped a shotgun snap, struggled to make throws downfield and consistently checked down quickly rather than let plays develop. The result was three points in an ugly first half—and boos from the crowd—and an offense that looked like it was operating with a typical backup quarterback instead of a Super Bowl MVP.
Things would have been even worse if Robert Alford didn't drop a straightforward interception, although Foles at least caught a pass from Nelson Agholor.
For as incredible as Foles was in the playoffs, he was also just 23-of-49 (46.9 percent) for 202 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the final two games of the 2017 regular season. He's a far cry from the MVP candidate Wentz was prior to the injury and lowers Philadelphia's ceiling.
It's asking too much to expect Foles to tap into last year's postseason magic.
Falcons Need to Target Julio Jones to Fix Red-Zone Woes
The Falcons made the playoffs last season, but it wasn't because of their red-zone offense.
They were a disappointing 23rd in the league in points per red-zone appearance in 2017, per Football Outsiders, and picked up right where they left off when Philly stuffed Devonta Freeman's 4th-and-goal sweep on the opening drive.
It would have helped if Atlanta realized it could utilize its unguardable receiver on the play.
Jones—who finished with 10 catches for 169 yards but no touchdowns—watched from the sidelines as Freeman was tackled and then wasn't targeted on the second drive after the Falcons created a 1st-and-goal situation and settled for a field goal.
Ryan finally targeted him in the red zone in the second half but didn't give him a chance to make a play with an underthrown ball that was easily intercepted. He then threw it out of bounds on the game's final snap.
The Falcons have the pieces to make a Super Bowl run with Ryan under center, Jones on the outside, Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the backfield, and a talented defense, but they need to bolster their red-zone production. Sometimes the best answer is to not overthink things and get Jones the ball.
They should make sure he is on the field at least, because his mere presence forces the defense to account for him by shading his way, which creates running holes in the limited goal-line real estate.
If he's out there in single coverage, they could go to the fade route or a slant if given enough space. Jones is essentially unstoppable, and that shouldn't change when the Falcons are in the red zone.
Opener Overshadowed by Penalties, Controversial Non-Catch
Officials dominated discussion during the preseason as players and fans complained about the new helmet rule, and it took all of one regular-season game for the stripes to again step under the spotlight.
Jones would have finished with better numbers had his long catch not been ruled incomplete, which took away a golden scoring opportunity for a Falcons squad that lost by a single touchdown and led to the familiar refrain that nobody knows what a catch is in the NFL:
As if that weren't enough, there were almost as many penalties (26) as total points in a contest that dragged on with officials seemingly stopping play on every other snap.
Even the ending sequence featured an illegal contact call that gave the Falcons one more chance. Had Atlanta converted, the officials would have overshadowed the game even more.
If Thursday's contest was an indication of what's to come, expect the referees to be a major storyline during the 2018 NFL season.