ATLANTA – As it has been when the Eagles and Falcons tangle these last few seasons, a hard, physical, back-and-forth football game came down to a couple of inches. This time, on Atlanta's turf, the Eagles came up just short when Carson Wentz's fourth-and-8 completion to tight end Zach Ertz from Atlanta's 17-yard line gained 7 yards and 10 inches in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. After an official review, the call of change of possession on the field stood and the Eagles lost a heartbreaker, 24-20, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday night.
It was a breathtaking football game, and the Eagles fought through some tremendous adversity to nearly come away with a huge road victory. Stung by a pre-game calf injury suffered by tight end Dallas Goedert that kept him sidelined for the entire 60 minutes and early first-quarter injuries to wide receivers Alshon Jeffery (calf) and DeSean Jackson (groin), the Eagles' offense played with a paper-thin group of skill-position players for most of the game.
Instead of Jeffery and Jackson, the Eagles went with Mack Hollins and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside at wide receiver. Instead of having two tight ends and flexibility with their personnel groupings, the Eagles used Zach Ertz until he was dog tired on the field and employed running back Darren Sproles as a wide receiver.
But the Eagles battled, and they showed a champion's heart.
A magnificent 13-play, 83-yard drive that consumed 8:29 ended on a sneak from quarterback Carson Wentz to put the Eagles ahead, 20-17 with 3:13 remaining in the game. Atlanta got the ball back and the Eagles' defense dug in, pushing the Falcons to a fourth-and-3 situation. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan set up a screen pass for star wide receiver Julio Jones, who made the catch, got a terrific block from left tackle Jake Matthews to clear a path, and then sped down the left sideline to complete a 54-yard catch-and-run to give Atlanta the lead right back, 24-20 with 2:10 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"We had 'zero' pressure (all-out blitz) and so there aren't many guys on the second level, so a screen is what you want to run against a 'zero' pressure," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "They checked to that. We didn't have an answer, so you pick one guy (to cover) and Julio is off to the races."
But the Eagles weren't done quite yet. Wentz had the offense on the move and even had a chance to take the lead back when his perfect pass to Agholor on the left sideline, one that could have gone the distance, instead was an incompletion when Agholor simply … dropped … the … ball.
"No excuses. I have to make the play. I made mistakes that could have put us in position to win it," Agholor said after the game.
A few plays later, Agholor came up big with a leaping catch in traffic to gain 43 yards to the Atlanta 18-yard line, converting a fourth-and-14 play. Maybe, just maybe …
The clock ticked. The Eagles were out of timeouts. On first-and-10 from the Atlanta 18-yard line, Wentz passed incomplete for Hollins. On second down, Wentz threw short for Sproles to gain 2 yards. On third-and-8, Wentz threw too high for Ertz on the left side.
Fourth-and-8. Game on the line. Wentz completed a bullet to Ertz, who caught the ball and was immediately wrapped up by cornerback Isaiah Oliver and safety Keanu Neal. The officials ruled that Ertz was stopped just a few inches short of the first down. A replay review confirmed the call.
"I had a 10-yard route and I came back to the ball. I should have run it a little deeper just knowing the situation," Ertz said. "I'm disappointed in myself. The team counts on me to make the play on fourth down. We had plenty of time. We just came up a little short.
"I feel like I kind of let the team down in the end. We were so close. It's going to hurt for a while, but I'll be better. I felt like I was at the stick. I knew it was going to be close and that's why I kind of reached the ball out. I just didn't go far enough."
That the Eagles were even in position to win the game was, honestly, remarkable. The Eagles lost a lot of firepower and hung tough, overcoming a 17-6 lead, intercepting Ryan three times, and coming thisclose to pulling it off.
"No moral victories," center Jason Kelce said. "We had opportunities to win the game. That's the disappointing part."
Wentz completed 25 of 43 passes for 231 yards, one touchdown, and he threw two interceptions. The numbers weren't great. The performance sure was. Under pressure for much of the game and with the offense, minus a second tight end, unable to get anything going on the ground (21 carries, 49 yards), Wentz did his best and showed tremendous heart and resilience in this one. On the touchdown drive that gave the Eagles the 20-17 lead, Wentz escaped pressure and, as he was about to be sacked, fired a strike to Hollins for a 17-yard gain to convert a third-and-9 play from the Atlanta 29-yard line.
"That play, that was incredible," Ertz said. "Most quarterbacks don't even think of throwing that football. They're going down to the ground."
Wentz ended the drive with a 1-yard quarterback sneak and then completed the two-point conversion to Ertz and the Eagles led. They trailed one series later on the Jones catch-and-run, but Wentz put the Eagles right back into scoring position.
His resourcefulness was incredible.
"It hurts to lose this game," right tackle Lane Johnson said, "but we know we played with everything we had. We missed some chances. We kept fighting. I'll take this team anytime in a fight. We're not going to stop."
It's becoming quite a thing, this Eagles-Falcons rivalry. You can bet it's going to come down to the final play, and generally a yard here or an inch there. Unlike the most recent three meetings in Philadelphia when it went the Eagles' way, the team headed home unhappy and, at the same time, understanding that they showed a lot in defeat.
There are no moral victories, that much is understood. But the Eagles will, as Ertz said, be better after a game like this. They learned something about Hollins (5 receptions, 50 yards) and Arcega-Whiteside (1 reception, 4 yards). Ertz (16 targets, 8 catches, 72 yards) and Agholor (11 targets, 107 yards, touchdown) made plays – and also missed some. The defense withstood an onslaught of deep throws – 10 attempts in all from Ryan – and played tough until a fourth-and-3 play broke loose and a superstar receiver scored the deciding points.
Tough loss. Bruised feelings. Lots of injuries.
The Eagles have to shake it off and get ready for Sunday when Detroit comes to town for another NFC challenge.