- Phil Sheridan, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Whatever Chip Kelly and Nick Foles accomplish together as coach and quarterback of the Eagles, in these playoffs and beyond, they will look back on Sunday night's 24-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys as their first big game together.
And they will know, deep in their hearts, that those unheralded guys on the Philadelphia defense saved their postseason lives.
With a combination of smarts, sports science and magic, Kelly turned the 4-12 Eagles team he inherited into a 10-6 division title winner. Foles, who took over at quarterback in October, went 8-2 as a starter and finished the season as the NFL's highest rated passer.
The Eagles came to Foles' native Texas for a virtual playoff game against the Cowboys. Win and the Eagles would be NFC East champions. They would host the New Orleans Saints in a first-round playoff game Saturday night. They would have a puncher's chance to be that hot team that burns its way to the Super Bowl seemingly every year.
For a half, they had things in hand. Foles threw two touchdown passes, giving him 27 for the season against just two interceptions. His passer rating was 155.5. The Eagles had a 17-10 lead and possession of the ball to start the third quarter.
And then it started unraveling. The offense was brutal in the third quarter. Foles looked overwhelmed, completing 3 of 8 passes for 41 yards and fumbling the ball away at his own 20. It was so bad, Kelly had Foles throw exactly two passes in the entire fourth quarter.
"We made it a game," Eagles left tackle Jason Peters said. "Not scoring, stalling out a couple times on offense. We let them back in the game."
The defense took the game back.
After Foles' fumble, Dallas ran three plays for a total of 2 yards. Linebackers Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin made one-on-one tackles to stop Jason Witten once and DeMarco Murray twice. The Cowboys kicked a field goal and the Eagles clung to their slim, 17-16 lead.
After another three-and-out by Foles and the offense, the Eagles' defense allowed 1 yard on the Cowboys' next possession. That forced a punt that DeSean Jackson, who was held to three catches, returned 23 yards to the Philadelphia 48-yard line.
That was the spark the Eagles needed. They were at midfield instead of their own 20. LeSean McCoy ran three times for 24 yards. Foles completed a short pass that Brent Celek took 22 yards down to the 6-yard line.
That's when Kelly almost outsmarted himself. He couldn't resist bringing Brad Smith in for another of those gimmick plays that look so clever on the dry-erase board. The halfback option pass went incomplete.
"Trying to score," Kelly said. "We thought we would be in man coverage down there. We had a throw back to the quarterback [called]."
Fourth-and-less-than-a-yard, late in the third quarter.
The book says kick the field goal. Kelly decided to go for it.
"We felt like with the ball on the half-yard line, we've got to be able to punch it in," Kelly said.
They couldn't. Foles was stuffed on the quarterback keeper.
If the Cowboys had seized the momentum there and won, Kelly would have had a very tough time living down the gadget play, the failed fourth down and the non-use of McCoy. That didn't happen, because the Eagles' defense wouldn't let it happen.
"That was an interesting fourth quarter," Kelly said. "Those guys didn't flinch."
The Cowboys drove 59 yards to a fourth-and-1 of their own at the Philadelphia 40-yard line. Jason Garrett decided to go for it. He had a good play call. The Eagles expected a run, so Murray slipped into the flat for a flare pass from Kyle Orton.
Barwin thought it was a run, saw that Orton still had the ball and closed in on him. Orton tried to get it over the 6-foot-4 linebacker's head. He couldn't. Barwin swatted it away. Eagles ball.
"I thought I could catch it," Barwin said. "I knew we were off the field. But I knew there was still some game left to play. I knew it was a big play in the game, but I knew we would be back out there on defense."
It was the first of several signature plays the defense made to save this game for the Eagles. The next was cornerback Cary Williams, breaking up a 2-point conversion pass for Dez Bryant that would have tied the game at 24.
Foles and the offense got the ball back with a chance to run down the clock. Instead, it was another three-and-out, another punt, another save required by the defense.
As it turns out, the Eagles' defense had been through this drill a few times this season. Those home wins against Washington and Arizona came down to late defensive stops.
The nickel corner caught it and the Eagles were NFC East champions, Kelly had a division title in his first season and Foles won the first elimination game of his career.
"There's going to be adversity in games," Foles said. "We overcame it today as a team and it was an exciting game to win. I had a blast out there. Our defense was coming up big, special teams played really good ball, and our offense was able to put some points on the board. In those times of adversity, the game's not over. There's still time on the clock. That's how I've always looked at it -- I'm going to play until that clock says zero."
Earlier this season, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said he wouldn't judge Kelly strictly on wins and losses. That was before Lurie knew there would be 10 wins and a home playoff game.
But his larger point still holds true. Lurie hired Kelly because he believed the unorthodox college coach with the cocky grin could build a winning program. His Eagles, on offense and defense and special teams, made a pretty good case this year that Lurie was correct.
"This team has character," Peters said.
That seems clear. And it's just as clear the coach is a character.
"He's a little different than what most coaches are," said Williams, who won a Super Bowl with John Harbaugh in Baltimore last year. "He goes against the grain. It's great."