PHILADELPHIA — The feeling of disrespect was inescapable inside the walls of the Eagles‘ facility this week.
There were signs placed all over the building drilling home the fact the team was being undervalued and overlooked, according to Philadelphia linebacker Nigel Bradham. Even the team janitor got into the act, telling reporters as they walked through the hall leading to the locker room, “It’s us against the world, baby! They’re counting us out!”
It was everywhere.
“Disrespect will not be tolerated!” he said.
Right tackle Lane Johnson said the Eagles were being treated like the Cleveland Browns, despite a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. He wore a mask that looked like a dog’s head as he left the field after the Eagles beat the Falcons 15-10 on Saturday to advance to the NFC Championship Game. Philly will host the winner of Sunday’s matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints.
Truly embracing the underdog role, Lane Johnson and Chris Long bought dog masks to sport pregame.
The defensive players used the edge gained by playing with a chip on their shoulders to subdue a potent Atlanta attack. It took every last ounce of will, as Matt Ryan engineered a drive late and had the Falcons set up deep in Eagles territory. His fourth-down pass to Julio Jones in the corner of the end zone fell incomplete, though, giving the Eagles their first postseason win since the 2008 season.
“When did Carson [Wentz] go down? Since that point, no one’s given us a chance,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “I understand Carson’s a great player, but every week our guys are hearing the same thing. Now, all of a sudden, we’re not good enough? We’re 13-3, best record in football, home-field advantage throughout.
“The guys are gonna motivate themselves based on what they’ve heard for the last month. It really doesn’t matter what you guys talk about, because [our] locker room is united. I’ll go to bat for every one of those guys; I’ll go to war for every one of those guys in that dressing room.”
The Eagles were the first top seed in NFL history to enter its first playoff game as an underdog. The opening half showed why. Nick Foles was shaky in place of the injured Wentz, and the team fumbled four times, losing two of them.
Both turnovers led to points for the Falcons, who entered halftime up 10-9. The only reason it was that close was because a wayward Foles pass caromed off a Falcons player and landed in the hands of Torrey Smith for a 20-yard gain, setting up a 53-yard field goal from rookie kicker Jake Elliott as time expired.
Foles found a rhythm in the second half, though. Going against a stiff wind, he connected on five passes of 10-plus yards during a third-quarter drive — three to receiver Alshon Jeffery — to set up a go-ahead field goal from Elliott, who added another in the fourth to make it a 5-point game. The fact that the Eagles were unable to punch the ball in on that fourth-quarter drive, despite making it down to the 5-yard line, nearly cost them; but the defense bailed them out.
“We do this together. Not any one person has to be superhuman. That alleviates a lot of the pressure,” Foles said, “when you know every single guy is playing for each other.”
Eagles running back Jay Ajayi played an important role in the game. He tied a season high with 15 carries, gaining 54 yards, and he broke loose for a 32-yard gain on a screen pass — sprung by a pair of blocks from guard Stefen Wisniewski — on the fourth-quarter scoring drive.
It was an ugly win, but it counts just the same. The Eagles players were defiant this week, convinced that they had enough even in Wentz’s absence to get the job done. They were right — barely.
“This team is resilient. We’re a family. We’re a band of brothers. We were the underdogs,” said running back LeGarrette Blount. “This is a bye week for the first time in NFL history for the Falcons. You saw what the outcome was.”