PHILADELPHIA — Jalen Mills knew it would be up to him.
So did everyone else who saw the Falcons’ go-to guy, wide receiver Julio Jones, trot out and line up wide right on the fourth-and-goal play from the 2 with just over a minute left. Right across from Mills.
“I see 11 come to me, the best player on their team by far, knowing that they’re going to try to get the ball to him,” Mills said of the deciding play in Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game. “He’s their No. 1 playmaker.”
It was exactly the situation the cornerback wanted.
Mills and Jones got tangled up in the end zone at the top of the route, enough for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to have to pull the ball back as he rolled to his right. Jones went down to the ground and by the time he got to his feet, Ryan — fading toward the sideline — had to throw the ball up for grabs. It wobbled high over the outstretched arms of Jones for an incompletion with 58 seconds left.
“That’s what you dream of,” Mills said. “As a competitor you want to be the guy who has to make the play. You have to live and die by it. That’s just the way it is.”
The top-seeded Eagles lived, earning a 15-10 win over the sixth-seeded Falcons at Lincoln Financial Field and advancing to next Sunday’s NFC title game. The Eagles will host either the Vikings or the Saints for a chance to advance to Super Bowl LII.
“Everything kind of rushes through your mind,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of the feelings after Saturday’s win. “But the biggest emotion for me was the team, the guys, and the resiliency of this football team.”
It was the first home playoff win for the Eagles since 2007. It also came with their backup quarterback, Nick Foles, while starter Carson Wentz stood on the sideline with a crutch and a healing ACL suffered just over a month ago. Foles became the first NFL quarterback in 20 years to win a playoff game for a team after starting three or fewer games in the regular season (Randall Cunningham with the 1997 Vikings was the last to do so).
“We never doubted him,” wide receiver Alshon Jeffery said of Foles, who was 23-for-30 for 246 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
While the defense was holding the high-powered Falcons to 10 points and scoreless over the final 35:41 of the game, the offense was doing just enough to score points. That started at the end of the first half when the Eagles got the ball with 46 seconds left at their own 28. Foles “completed” a pass to Torrey Smith that looked like a sure interception but plinked off the knee of jumping Falcons safety Keanu Neal and ricocheted high in the air. Smith caught it Franco Harris-style at the 50. Then, with seven seconds left, Foles hit Jeffery on a 15-yard out and the receiver ducked out of bounds with one second left. That was enough time for Jake Elliott to kick a 53-yard field goal and close the Falcons’ lead to 10-9.
The score stayed that way until the Eagles used a pair of long, plodding drives — a combined 26 plays for 157 yards, controlling 13:39 of a 14:41 span of play — to score a total of six points. Elliott kicked a 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds left in the third quarter to give the Eagles a 12-10 lead, then a 21-yarder with 6:02 left in the game to make it 15-10.
Eagles offensive lineman Lane Johnson said the Falcons defense was “gassed.”
“I feel like they were cold,” he said. “It wasn’t 65 degrees like it was in California [for last week’s Falcons wild-card win over the Rams]. I felt like we wore them down physically with the long drives. They weren’t pretty. I wish we scored touchdowns instead of field goals.”
They also left plenty of time for the Falcons to drive for a potential game-winning touchdown. And it looked as if they might just do that, especially when Ryan hit Jones for a 20-yard gain on fourth-and-6 from the Atlanta 42 with just over three minutes left. They got to the Eagles’ 9 on a 10-yard run by Tevin Coleman to set up first-and-goal with 1:19 left.
Ryan’s first pass was a fade to Jones on the left that was incomplete. Then he tried to throw an underhand shovel pass to Terron Ward that was also incomplete. On third-and-goal, Ryan hit Jones on a slant to the 2. That play was reviewed, giving the Eagles time to huddle up and talk about what was going to be the game-deciding play whatever the outcome.
“We have to keep them out of the end zone,” safety Malcom Jenkins said of those on-field discussions. “Pretty much the whole season is on that play right there.”
They made the stop. And now they can keep going.