The Eagles' strategy wasn't to simply run the football against the Falcons. The idea was for the Eagles' offensive line to pound the Falcons defense into submission.
Everybody expected the Eagles to lean on the ground attack in their playoff game Saturday. Most felt it necessary to hide or protect Nick Foles. Some thought it was time to unleash workhorse running back Jay Ajayi. Strong wind and freezing temperatures were factors as well.
The Eagles had something else in mind. They felt they could exhaust the Falcons.
"We wanted to wear them down physically," right tackle Lane Johnson said.
It's not an innovative concept. Hand the ball to a pair of 220-plus-pound backs 24 times behind an offensive line that features three Pro Bowlers and defenses tend to erode. Defensive linemen tire. Linebackers and defensive backs lose their courage.
Plus, the Eagles were fresh off a bye week and players extra rest for nearly a month with a playoff spot and seeding wrapped up. The Falcons had to scrap and claw just to get into the tournament, then fly from Atlanta to Los Angeles for a game, back home and up to Philadelphia in a span of eight days.
Johnson thinks the Falcons were "gassed" by the end. Probably cold, too. Similar sentiments were shared throughout the Eagles' locker room.
"If you really look through the game," Ajayi said, "you could tell that their defense got worn down early, and then in certain drives where we kept going at them, they got worn down in those drives."
Ajayi was referring to two second-half drives that went for a combined 26 plays and took almost 14 minutes off the clock. Though both possessions fell short of the end zone, the ensuing field goals proved to be the decisive points in a 15-10 Eagles victory.
Ironically, the majority of the damage done on those drives came via Foles and the passing attack.
“I knew we could run the ball just from the first half, what we were able to do," Johnson said. "We were able to constantly wear them down, grind them down, then hit them with some play action on the back end.”
Ajayi carried the ball seven times for 49 yards in the first quarter, while Blount raced to the pylon for the Eagles' lone touchdown in the second. But by the end of the evening, the duo had only averaged 3.0 yards per attempt.
The steady barrage of runs still helped to soften a Falcons pass rush that recorded just one sack and four quarterback hits in the contest. Foles looked increasingly comfortable as the game progressed, consistently stepping up into clean pockets and throwing darts to keep the chains moving.
“I think that we have really good players who ended up getting the job done," center Jason Kelce said. "We’ve been pretty solid in pass blocking all year long with the guys that we have and with the coaches who have put us in good situations.”
The Eagles relied heavily on screen passes, perhaps to make Foles' job easier. Regardless, it had the added benefit of getting their linemen out in space, where they could really punish Falcons linebackers and defensive backs.
No play was more emblematic of the way the Eagles' O-line manhandled the Falcons than a 32-yard screen to Ajayi where left guard Stefen Wisniewski erased two defensive backs in succession.
“We’re all playing our best football right now,” Wisniewski said. “I got a lot better since last year. [Left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai] is playing a lot better. Lane is playing at an elite level. Kelce is playing at an elite level. [Right guard Brandon Brooks] is playing at an elite level.
"It’s just a great group of guys playing well.”