By Nick Shook
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Doug Pederson knows he doesn’t have a game-changing quarterback. Fortunately for the Eagles, he realized this before it was too late.
Pederson adjusted his play-calling late in the first quarter after two drives proved what we already knew — Philadelphia couldn’t win the game primarily on the arm of Nick Foles — and it made a world of difference in what ended up being a 15-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
“Part of our success this season has been the balance, balance of run and pass. We got back to that,” Pederson said after Philadelphia’s Divisional Round victory. “We stuck with it and guys executed the game plan extremely well.”
The storylines surrounding this one were cemented well before kickoff: The No. 1 seed isn’t favored, despite being at home and owning a 13-3 regular season mark. Foles isn’t good enough to win a playoff game. Atlanta has been hot, especially defensively.
A majority of that went by the wayside on Saturday when Pederson decided to stop calling the game like he had Carson Wentz under center. It was almost as if someone handed the play-calling head coach a copy of his own team’s roster and he flipped to the page that listed his running backs — Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement — and had an epiphany.
Since losing Wentz, Pederson had done his team no favors in his play-calling, surprisingly moving away from the run with Foles under center. The production drop-off that ensued wasn’t all that shocking, and through a quarter on Saturday, it was predictable and borderline frustrating to watch. But Pederson’s shift led to a brutish drive that landed the Eagles in the end zone via, you guessed it, a Blount rushing touchdown.
More importantly, it took Foles out of the precarious position of playmaker and shifted him into the role of game manager. It’s an insult to any quarterback, but it’s Philadelphia’s best chance at a postseason victory without Wentz. Against the Falcons, it worked well.
“Nick is Nick,” Pederson said of Foles. “That’s what we’ve talked about and that’s what he and I have talked about. We stayed committed to the run obviously, and that helps, and then with the passing game, just him making great decisions. Getting the ball out of his hand, finding the open receiver and [he] did a really nice job executing the gameplan.”
Getting the ball out of Foles’ hand is key to the offense’s rhythm, flow and success, and it’s also code for Pederson saying he doesn’t want the Eagles relying on Foles’ arm. The numbers don’t show it, but the tape does. After Philadelphia’s first scoring drive, much of the Eagles‘ offense from there was built out of the run: run plays, run fakes, screens and everyone’s favorite hot term — run-pass options.
RPOs aren’t anyone’s comfort zone and Foles wasn’t anywhere near excellent, but Philadelphia succeeded in putting the quarterback in short down-and-distance situations. The result was a line that reads much better than it looked: 23-of-30 passing, 246 yards and a 100.1 passer rating. Foles misfired fairly often, overthrowing open targets, and even a handful of his completions were poorly located passes that required his receivers to make good or great catches. He was also the beneficiary of a botched interception that deflected off the knee of a Falcons defender and into the hands of Torrey Smith.
None of that inspires much confidence, but it does get the Eagles to next week and a date with either the Vikings or Saints in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday. That’s more than most of us expected entering Saturday.
“Since (Wentz suffered his season ending injury), no one’s given us a chance,” Pederson said after the win. “Nobody’s given us a chance. I understand, Carson’s a great player. But every week, our guys are hearing the same thing, and now we’re all of a sudden not good enough?
“We’re 13-3, we have the best record in football, home-field advantage throughout. The guys are going to motivate themselves just based on what they’ve done and heard for the last month of football. Listen, it really doesn’t matter what you guys talk about because that locker room in there is united, and I’ll go to bat for every one of those guys and I’ll go to war with every one of those guys in the dressing room.”
The narrative will revolve around Foles, but the real story starts (and potentially ends) with Philadelphia’s running backs and its stifling defense. How that translates against either New Orleans or Minnesota, we’ll learn next week. But for seven more days, the Eagles are still alive.