Fourth-and-the-Season for the Falcons
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The Eagles and Falcons had played nearly 59 minutes of football on Saturday and a trip to the NFC Championship Game came down to one play: 4th-and-2 from the 2-yard-line.
That's the type of situation where an offensive coordinator dials up his best play and it was an opportunity for the embattled Steve Sarkisian to put the bed the season-long narrative that he was a pale comparison to the guy he replaced, now-San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Instead "Sark" added fuel to that fire by cutting the field in half and calling for a 50/50 ball to Julio Jones in the corner on the end zone.
If it succeeds all is forgotten. If it fails the microscope gets even more high-powered but success or failure doesn't alter just how pedestrian the play call was.
After all, this was the Falcons, the team with the still-reigning MVP at quarterback in Matt Ryan as well as the All-World Jones and significant playmakers like Mohamed Sanu, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Cutting the field in half is what coordinators with raw quarterbacks do in order to limit the progressions and make things more manageable.
When you have a signal caller like Ryan, however, it signifies something else: the belief that the offensive line is incapable of holding off the Eagles' front seven.
"Most definitely," linebacker Nigel Bradham told 973espn.com when asked why the Falcons had Ryan on a sprint rollout instead of using the whole field. "When you have our front, it's pick your poison. Who are you going to double team?"
On Saturday, the answer to that would have been Fletcher Cox or Brandon Graham and it forced Atlanta to put the game in the hands of its best player, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound monster who doubles as an NFL wide receiver, in essentially a jump-ball situation.
Trailing 15-10, the Falcons put themselves on the precipice of a second consecutive NFC title tilt before Ryan sprinted out right.
Graham pressured Ryan and Jones slipped coming out of his break. The star QB deftly gave Jones a little extra time, however, and an opportunity to high-point the football.
Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills, though, was lights out in the game and nearly threw a shutout. The Eagles' second-year corner, a Pro Bowl alternate, was targeted four times on the afternoon and Ryan amassed just a 39.6 passer rating when looking Mills' way.
Jones couldn't come down with the football as the Philadelphia faithful erupted with the knowledge that the Eagles were on their way to the NFC Championship Game to host either the Minnesota Vikings or New Orleans Saints next Sunday.
The Falcons thought they were singling out a mismatch to save their season. Ironically, the real imparity was Jim Schwartz's preparation against Sarkisian's lack of imagination.
The Eagles knew what was coming.
“Soon as I seen 11 [Jones] break out the huddle and come to the left [or right of the offensive formation], I knew they were going to get him the ball,” Mills said. “I keyed it in. I told myself to line up and play great technique. I knew where the ball was going.”
So did Bradham who admitted multiple players actually called out the play.
"It's like basketball. If it's a game-winning situation, you want the ball in the hands of your guy," he said. "... As soon as they motioned that tight end over, we knew. We practiced it all week."
Safety Malcolm Jenkins, a very cerebral player, explained it even further.
"It was situational football. It was fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. They switched to a two-back formation. They aren’t going to run it from the two-yard line,” Jenkins explained. “We were expecting a pass. The only kind of pass that you’re going to get from a two-back formation is really to move the pocket, so you eliminate all of the plays that aren’t going to come. We were able to recognize that pretty much before they even came out of the huddle.”
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen