PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles went all-in here Thursday night on their commemoration of last season’s Super Bowl title. They trotted out Nick Foles to play quarterback. They reprised a variation of the “Philly Special.” And they rebounded from a feeble first half to get the new season off to a victorious start by barely holding on to beat the Atlanta Falcons, 18-12, in the NFL’s season-opening game.
Tailback Jay Ajayi provided a pair of second-half touchdown runs, including an 11-yard dash with just more than two minutes remaining, as the Eagles took a first step toward defending their championship.
The game ended with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan throwing an incompletion on a first-down play from the Philadelphia 5-yard line that began with one second remaining. Wide receiver Julio Jones caught Ryan’s pass but was ruled out of bounds. The Falcons were given that final chance to win when the Eagles were penalized for illegal contact on a fourth-down incompletion thrown by Ryan.
“It’s definitely important to us to put our best foot forward,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. “We have to win a lot more games to talk about some of the things that people are already thinking about around here. . . . That’s a big win. But again, nothing from last year matters.”
It was reminiscent of the ending of the Eagles’ triumph over the Falcons in an NFC semifinal last season. That game likewise concluded with a near miss incompletion from Ryan to Jones, sending the Eagles to the NFC title game. This time, they’re merely 1-0.
An evening filled with, until then, uninspiring football turned suddenly lively in the third quarter when Foles, starting again in place of Carson Wentz, made a catch on a gadget-play throw by wide receiver Nelson Agholor. That seemed, to some, like a replay of Foles’s touchdown grab in the Super Bowl, and it set up a one-yard touchdown by Ajayi to give the Eagles a 10-6 lead.
But, in fact, Coach Doug Pederson said this play, called “Philly Philly,” was copied from the failed trick play that the New England Patriots used against the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
“It’s a play we had put in for this week,” Pederson said. “It was a play that was in our third-down menu. We were on the correct hash mark. And it was the right time of the game.”
The Atlanta offense, frustrated all night by wasted scoring chances and a key interception thrown by Ryan, finally did its part by turning an interception thrown by Foles into a fourth-quarter touchdown run by tailback Tevin Coleman. But the Eagles had a response with Ajayi’s second touchdown and held on from there.
Wentz, still working his way back from the knee injury that cut short what might have been a league-MVP season in 2017, was on the Eagles’ inactive list for the game. But he was on the field beforehand, throwing passes during pregame warmups and looking plenty mobile and sharp.
The Eagles kept Foles around, rather than trading him during the offseason after his MVP performance in the Super Bowl victory over the Patriots, for just this situation. But he’d struggled with nagging injuries and unimpressive play during the preseason. Pederson was cranky with the media during the run-up to this game when it was reported, before Pederson was ready to announce it, that Foles would get the start.
So little had gone as scripted for the Eagles recently, and they had to put their celebration of the Super Bowl triumph on hold Thursday night when storms pushed back the start of the game by about 45 minutes. Fans were instructed to leave the open seating areas at Lincoln Financial Field, then made their way back to their seats in time to watch team owner Jeffrey Lurie and former Eagles great Brian Dawkins lead the festivities.
The joyous memories of last season quickly gave way to the harsh realities of a new season, as a few boos could be heard from Philadelphia fans amid a dreadful first half for the defending champs. The Falcons weren’t much better, and it was a 6-3 game after an ugly half that included a flag-fest of 16 penalties.
The Falcons twice drove to the doorstep of the Eagles’ goal line in the opening quarter, yet emerged with only three points. Ryan wasn’t playing like a former league MVP. Foles was resembling the journeyman he’d been for much of his NFL career rather than a Super Bowl standout. The on-field misery continued into the third quarter. The game needed something. Anything. And then Pederson dialed up some of that trademark trickery.
The 15-yard strike from Agholor to Foles energized the crowd. It seemed to do the same for the Eagles. They cashed in soon thereafter when Ajayi bulled his way into the end zone, and the celebration was back on.