ATLANTA –The pass from quarterback Sam Bradford glanced off the hands of wide receiver Jordan Matthews and floated in the air, and Atlanta safety Ricardo Allen caught it, cradled it and ended the Eagles' hopes of a stirring comeback victory at the Georgia Dome on Monday night as the Falcons prevailed, 26-24. Truth is, the game shouldn't have come down to Matthews' fingertips.
A lousy first half, a total of 14 penalties whistled against the Eagles, some porous pass defense and missed opportunities doomed the Eagles in this one, a quirky way to open the 2015 regular season.
That didn't matter to Matthews, who was clearly disappointed in the outcome on the third-and-8 play from the Eagles' 16-yard line with 1:17 remaining in the game.
"We've got to make a play," said Matthews, who made plenty of them, catching 10 passes for 102 yards. "That's pretty much it. Nothing more and nothing less."
The Eagles were their own worst enemy on Monday night. They stumbled around in the first half and dug themselves a deep, deep hole, trailing 20-3 at the half. They took a lead in the fourth quarter only to have the Falcons drive 51 yards in five plays on the very next possession to score the game-winning points on a Matt Bryant 47-yard field goal. They had all of those penalties, 10 of which were accepted by Atlanta. They allowed wide receiver Julio Jones to catch nine passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
"We just made so many mistakes, dumb things, guys tripping, stupid mistakes," center Jason Kelce said. "There's a lot we need to clean up."
Touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the second half couldn't offset a dreadful first two quarters for the Eagles, who were forced to come back from 17 points down, as they did in the 2014 opener against Jacksonville at Lincoln Financial Field. That Eagles team roared back to win the game.
This Eagles team fell just short, losing the momentum of those three touchdown drives with two late-game offensive possessions that yielded zero points and plenty of frustration.
With Atlanta ahead 26-24 thanks to Bryant's fourth field goal of the game, the Eagles took control at their 20-yard line and moved quickly down the field. Bradford, on fire after a struggle in the first half, completed three straight passes to Matthews for 15 yards. Darren Sproles ran for 11 yards to convert a third down and the Eagles had something going. Something good, it seemed. Something unstoppable.
A Bradford-to-Sproles pass picked up another first down and then Bradford threw short for running back Ryan Mathews, who turned upfield and gained 25 yards to the Atlanta 10-yard line. But Kelce was penalized for holding on the screen play, a mistake that would come back to haunt the offense.
Riley Cooper gained 12 yards on first-and-16 and then the Eagles, who passed the ball so effectively on the drive – Bradford completed 19-of-21 passes in the second half to that point - handed to Mathews for a gain of 3 yards to the right side. On third-and-1, Mathews again got the call, again to the right side, and the Falcons stuffed him for no gain.
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Head coach Chip Kelly then called on placekicker Cody Parkey on a 44-yard field goal attempt, and Parkey pushed it wide right.
"I'm human. I just missed it," Parkey said. "There are no excuses. I just missed it."
Kelce's penalty didn't sit well with him.
"I had been called earlier on the game on it, so I knew that they were going to be pretty strict with the calls so I should have learned and made a better choice on the play," he said.
As for the run on third down – third-and-one – Kelce said the defense just got the better of the Eagles at the line of scrimmage.
"They were in a defense that we knew was coming and we had game planned to block it a certain way and we just didn't get to the 'Mike' (middle) linebacker (Paul Worrilow)," Kelce said. "If we had it back, I would just go past the defensive tackle who would slant across my face and just get up on the 'Mike' right now. But I wanted to try and get a double team at the point of attack, try to get some push because it was third-and-one and obviously we had a guy left unblocked who was in the hole."
The Eagles of the first half, well, they'd rather forget those 30 minutes. It was ugly. The offense had no rhythm as Atlanta schemed to play an extra man in the box – eight quite a bit of the half – to take away the Eagles' running game. Bradford wasn't able to get into any kind of flow throwing down the field, so he dinked and dunked his way to 15 completions on 27 attempts for a meager 117 yards.
Bradford missed an open Zach Ertz in the end zone and the Eagles scored their only points of the half on a Parkey field goal to cap a 69-yard drive to close to within 10-3 in the second quarter, and then Bradford threw a back-foot interception to safety William Moore – the pass was intended for Ertz – with just over a minute remaining in the half and Atlanta turned the giveaway into seven points to take a 20-3 advantage into halftime.
The offense totaled 125 net yards and just six first downs, with the running game limited to 8 yards on seven carries.
To their credit, the Eagles bounced back. They relied on Sproles, who ran for 50 yards on five carries and who caught seven passes for 76 yards. Bradford was a completely different quarterback in the second half and he finished 36-of-52 passing for 336 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. DeMarco Murray scored twice, but had just 12 touches and 20 total yards. The Eagles converted just 3-of-12 third downs.
It was a loss, yes, and it was bitter, but with Dallas coming to town on Sunday for an early-season NFC East showdown, the Eagles took a moment to think of the big picture.
"I think you feel good about it. Obviously we got off to a slow start. Defensively we started off well and then they got some things on us and we kind of loosened our grip just a little bit," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "A good team is going to make some plays. Once we made some adjustments we came out as a team. Nobody was really fazed by the score at halftime. We came out with great energy and that's encouraging, know that whenever we stop beating ourselves we have the team to win."