PHILADELPHIA — With white flags waving, the Philadelphia fans rose, clamoring for the home team to pull off the improbable. This was the Eagles' time, they believed, their moment to show the football world that they could still seize the day, still pull off the unlikely upset, even as underdogs in their own stadium.
And even without quarterback Carson Wentz.
The Atlanta Falcons didn't care about the hopes and Super Bowl dreams of the pessimistic city of Philadelphia. So with precious seconds ticking off the clock in the final stages of Saturday's NFC divisional round game, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan tried to make a statement of his own. But when he lofted a fourth-and-goal pass toward the right sideline of the end zone with under a minute to go, the Philadelphia defense answered the call once more, preserving a 15-10 victory at Lincoln Financial Field.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins had one thought racing through his mind at the time, and he implored his unit to rise to the occasion when it counted most. "This is the season," he told them. "One play. Two yards."
And now the top-seeded Eagles will host either the fourth-seeded New Orleans Saints or second-seeded Minnesota Vikings in next week's NFC championship game.
While Eagles backup-turned-starter Nick Foles dominated the headlines this past week, it was Philadelphia's defense and running game that helped ensure the win.
"We have the best defense in the league," boasted running back Jay Ajayi, who carried the ball 15 times for 54 yards and caught three passes for an additional 44. "And all week they were getting told how the Falcons were going to come in and kill them. So, obviously, they felt some type of way about that and they showed up today."
The announced crowd of 69,596 cheered every one of Foles's 23 completions, his attempts to jump-start the Eagles' offense and his near-touchdown dive in the game's early stages. The absence of their injured leader Wentz — the man who had guided the Eagles to an 11-2 start stood by on the sidelines, watching with one crutch under his right arm — would not dampen the feisty spirit of the Philadelphia fans, who withstood subfreezing temperatures to witness the team's first divisional round run since the 2008 season.
"We never looked [at it] as we never had a chance to win this game," defensive end Chris Long said. "We always expected to win this game, and if we play our best it's not as close. At the end of the day, we're not surprised."
While the top-seeded Eagles never viewed themselves as underdogs, several factors converged Saturday for them to advance to the conference title game without Wentz: 1) their home-field advantage; 2) Foles avoiding a disastrous performance; 3) their defense dominating; and 4) their running game wearing down the Falcons.
Foles finished 23 for 30 for 246 yards, good for a quarterback rating of 100.1. His Atlanta counterpart, the 2016 MVP, was 22 for 36 for 210 yards and a rating of 86.6.
And in a celebratory postgame locker room, players took turns praising Foles for being good enough on the biggest stage.
"Nick did a great job, man. He made the throws that he had to make tonight," Long said. ". . . He didn't make that mistake that would have hurt us. In a close, low-scoring ballgame like that, a turnover is huge. And Nick didn't do those things."
Early on, however, there were far too many missed throws from Foles — an overthrown pass to open tight end Trey Burton with 2:15 left in the first half and the Eagles trailing 10-6 was a big one — and too many questionable decisions — such as his errant ball to an unsuspecting Falcons defender that, luckily for the Eagles, bounced into the arms of wide receiver Torrey Smith in the final moments of the first half.
Neither offense, however, looked playoff-ready through the first two quarters. Save for LeGarrette Blount's one-yard touchdown run, which gave the Eagles an early 6-3 lead, and Ryan's six-yard touchdown pass to Devonta Freeman to regain a 10-6 advantage about five minutes later in the second quarter, neither team looked settled.
Foles completed 11 of 15 passes in the first half, while Ryan went 12 for 17 for 116 yards and one touchdown.
But perhaps the most disturbing sign was the surprising first-half disappearance of Ajayi. The 24-year-old playmaker had hoped his team would ride the "Jay Train" all the way to the NFC title game, but Ajayi might have been a little too hyped on the biggest stage. On the Eagles' second play from scrimmage and the ball on the Atlanta 33, Ajayi ran it six yards up the middle before fumbling. Atlanta safety Keanu Neal recovered, and the Eagles missed an early opportunity.
"That killed me," Ajayi said of the miscue, adding that "I didn't think I played well. I left some plays out there."
There were plenty of plays the Eagles didn't make, but with the game on the line, and only two yards standing between the Falcons and the end zone late in the fourth quarter, it was the underdog that came out on top.
"Just keep disrespecting us, and we're going to keep proving people wrong," said Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who finished with four catches for 61 yards. ". . . We don't care what anybody else says. We're just going to keep believing in one another and just keep fighting."