This was a perfect start, a perfect ending, to the start of the 2018 NFL season. On a night when the opening kickoff, as well as the unveiling of the Super Bowl championship banner, was delayed 45 minutes because of a drenching thunder and lightning storm in the area, the Eagles rocked Lincoln Financial Field with a physical, emotional, and defensive-led 18-12 win over the Atlanta Falcons in a game that was eerily similar to the playoff win over the Falcons in January.
"Crazy, right?" safety Rodney McLeod said. "I'm over there thinking, yeah, this is the same kind of game so let's go out and win it the same way."
That's pretty much how it played out, too. A final-play pass on first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, aimed at wide receiver Julio Jones in the left corner of the end zone, was incomplete thanks to great coverage from cornerback Ronald Darby and the Eagles – and the packed house at the Linc – erupted in celebration.
"You want that play to come your way. You want to be in that position," said Darby, who was physical with Jones and pushed Jones out of bounds to force the incomplete. "We kind of knew they were going to throw it to Julio. They were doing it all night (Jones was targeted 19 times and had 10 catches for 169 yards). I went up and wanted the football. We both went for the ball. It was a great feeling when it was incomplete."
It was Atlanta's fifth trip inside the Philadelphia 20-yard line and the Falcons scored only one touchdown on those five trips. The Eagles held on a fourth down early in the game, Rasul Douglas made a crucial interception in the second half and the game ended on the incomplete throw to Jones.
On a night that included Philly Special, Part 2 – this time, the play call truly was "Philly Philly," quarterback Nick Foles took the snap, gave the ball to running back Corey Clement who pitched to wide receiver Nelson Agholor, and Agholor, running right, floated a completion to Foles for a 15-yard gain to convert a third-and-5 play on a touchdown drive that ended with a Jay Ajayi 1-yard touchdown run. The offense took time to come alive, scoring two touchdowns, a PAT, and a two-point conversion in the second half.
"Everyone loves a good trick play," said Foles, who said the Eagles "got one good rep" in practice on the play.
The defense was on top of its game. The run defense limited Atlanta to 74 rushing yards on 18 carries. Jones was a huge factor, but the front four, with just a touch of the blitz, sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan four times and really gave up nothing other than a 9-yard touchdown run to Tevin Coleman.
"Our job is to bring the heat up front and I think we did a good job of that," said defensive end Chris Long, who had 1.5 of the four sacks. "We had some good pressure. We needed every bit of it."
After an ugly, feel-it-out first half, the Eagles finally got something going in the third quarter, with the help of the completion to Foles, and Ajayi took a second-and-goal handoff and reached into the end zone as the Eagles took a 10-6 lead. It stayed that way until Atlanta intercepted Foles and took possession at the Philadelphia 27-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Coleman scored and the Eagles were facing another fourth-quarter deficit.
Taking possession at the 46-yard line with 4:51 remaining, the Eagles mixed the short passing game – a nifty catch-and-run from Darren Sproles gained 9 yards on a key third-and-8 play – and Corey Clement gained 21 yards on a third-and-2 play from the 35-yard line and the Eagles were in business. Ajayi ran left behind tackle Jason Peters and scooted 11 yards for a touchdown, and then Ajayi converted the two-point conversion and the Eagles led 18-12 with 2:19 to go.
And then it was Atlanta's turn, and a repeat of the playoff win from January. The Falcons reached the Eagles' 10-yard line and ran four plays – all throws into the end zone because the Falcons were out of timeouts – and thought they had it won after a Ryan pass sailed high through the end zone, but middle linebacker Jordan Hicks was penalized for illegal contact, and Atlanta had one final play.
The result was the same as January. The Eagles' secondary, playing so well, forced an incomplete pass and a historic night ended in victory.
"It's a tone-setter, I think," tight end Zach Ertz said. "It's only one game, but it was a big one for us. We showed the toughness we always show. Nothing about tonight really surprised me. I know what kind of team this is and how we respond to adversity. Now we have a chance to take a long weekend and enjoy it and then get ready for the next game (at Tampa Bay). It's a great feeling. It was an incredible atmosphere. Our fans brought it. Without them, we don't win this game."
There are a lot of things to clean up here, starting with the offense. The Eagles managed just 232 total net yards. They were a strong 8-of-16 on third downs, but they averaged just 3.6 yards per offensive play and Foles had an average gain of 3.2 yards per pass attempt. It wasn't pretty. But it doesn't have to be pretty all the time.
It just has to be a victory.
And it was.
In grand style to kick off the season.
"We'll take it," Ajayi said. "We have a resilient team. We're going to fight you to the end, I can promise you that."
Take a look at all the photos from the Philadelphia Eagles' home opener against the Atlanta Falcons to kick off the 2018 season.