By Adesina O. Koiki
PHILADELPHIA – Almost every step of the Atlanta Falcons’ topsy-turvy 2017 season either moved them closer to their goal of a return trip to the Super Bowl or a date with their worst-case scenario.
The most important steps taken in Saturday’s playoff game for Atlanta belonged to the feet of wide receiver Julio Jones.
The Falcons’ season ended in Philadelphia with a loss to the top-seeded Eagles in the NFC Divisional Playoff game, 15-10, a defeat that wasn’t sealed until the playmaking wideout fell to the ground in the end zone while running his route on a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line in the final minute of the game, forcing quarterback Matt Ryan into an incomplete pass that eventually went Jones’ way.
As Philadelphia advances to the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons, who held a 10-9 lead at halftime in this game, will spend the offseason thinking what might have been.
“Well, I can tell you, just regardless of change or team, it just hurts,” said Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. “We weren’t prepared to have this not go our way.”
Atlanta’s final offensive play of the game was supposed to see Jones running an out route toward the sideline, but as he was ready to make his cut, the ground gave underneath his feet, throwing off the timing of the play. After pump faking in response to Jones’ slip, Ryan held the ball an extra second before forcing a pass to Jones, who had gotten up from off the turf.
The pass was high, going through Jones’ hands.
“That’s a play we practice all the time,” said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who went 22-for-36 for 210 yards and a touchdown. “Certainly in those situations, you want to go to your best players. You know, obviously, rolled to the right and had an opportunity to Julio. It just didn’t work out and it’s disappointing.
“We’re disappointed that we didn’t make the play, but I thought it was a good call,” Ryan continued.
Early in the second quarter, with Atlanta holding on to a 3-0 lead, the Eagles gambled on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, deciding to leave their offense out. Their risk was rewarded when running back LeGarrette Blount ran to the right to score the first touchdown of the game and a 6-3 lead. (The extra point was missed.)
Atlanta retook the lead later in the quarter, benefitting from a special teams error from the Eagles as, for the second consecutive week, a Matt Bosher punt ended up bouncing off of an opponent before being recovered by the Falcons. Six plays later, Ryan, while scrambling on a third-down play, found running back Devonta Freeman at the goal line to give Atlanta a 10-6 lead.
Philadelphia changed the momentum of the game right at the end of the first half, as a 15-yard pass from Eagles quarterback Nick Foles to Alshon Jeffery, who stepped out of bounds right after catching it, moved the ball into field goal range with one second left. Jake Elliott, who missed an earlier extra point, nailed a 53-yard field goal to cut Philadelphia’s deficit to 10-9 at halftime.
“That was huge,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said about the points right before the half. “Just to be able to get down there – we’re out of timeouts, Nick to Alshon on the sideline was huge to get us into that field goal range. And Jake’s been doing that all season long.
“It was great to get momentum with our defense coming back out to start the second half,” Pederson continued.
Elliott added a 31-yard field goal late in the third quarter and a 27-yarder with 6:02 remaining in the game to put the Eagles up 15-10. From there, Philadelphia’s defense took over.
In the second half, the Eagles forced Atlanta to punt in its three possessions as the Falcons gained only 44 combined on those three drives.
Atlanta’s fourth drive of the second half went 74 yards – but needed to go 76. Jones caught a 20-yard pass on a fourth-and-6 to move the ball to the Eagles’ 38-yard line just ahead of the 2-minute warning. Atlanta eventually had a first-and-goal from the 9.
The Falcons decided to throw the ball on four consecutive plays afterward, completing a third-down pass to Jones to the 2-yard line before his ill-fated slip on fourth down.
“We wanted to make sure we were going to put it in the guys’ hands who could go make a play to go do it, and that’s what we did,” Quinn said about the play selection at the end of the game.
Atlanta ends the season with an 11-7 record, including the two playoff games this postseason.