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‘Battle Of The Birds’ Goes To Philly
Pregame Notes: I was pleasantly surprised to see Lincoln Financial Field filled to the rafters during pre-game as I am sure all Eagles fans were up very late Saturday Night to see their beloved Phillies win 5-4 over the Tampa Rays. After a bye week to rest all of their bumps and bruises, the Eagles are back for this highly anticipated with the upstart Atlanta Falcons.
Plain and simple the Eagles need this game to get back in the NFC East race. Good news should abound for the Eagles as they are (9-0) coming off of a bye under Andy Reid and for the first time in awhile the team is almost fully healthy with RB Brian Westbrook (ribs) and WR Kevin Curtis (sports hernia) returning to the line-up – missed starters WR Reggie Brown (hamstring) and G Shawn Andrews (back surgery).
The Falcons come into town as one of the biggest surprise teams of the 2008 NFL season. Led by new head coach Mike Smith, they have comeback from the “Abyss” that was their (3-13) horrible 2007 NFL season, which was filled with pothole after pothole including the Michael Vick dogfighting situation and former head coach Bobby Petrino quitting with three games remaining in the season. The Dirty Birds are also coming off a bye and have a good record but questions have lingered about whether they are too young and if their schedule has been too light for them to be legitimate contenders in the competitive NFC South.
The Falcons-Eagles game will be a special one for Falcons quarterback Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan, who returns to Philly (grew up in the suburbs and played at William Penn Charter in the city) for the first time as a professional. Ryan, the third overall pick in the ’08 NFL Draft, to play the Eagles as his team looks to close out doubts regarding their contender status at Lincoln Financial.
The all-time series record with the Falcons stands at 14-11-1, so expect a tough physical game in the “Battle of the Birds”.
First Quarter: Eagles 0 – Falcons 0, This quarter opened with the Falcons starting at their 21-yard line and moving the ball to almost mid-field but stalling after Ryan threw high over the head of receiver Harry Douglas. Ryan’s high pass set the tone for Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, as he too was also high and wide on several early throws. After picking up a first down, McNabb ended the next set of downs after wildly throwing high over the head of DeSean Jackson to the disdain of the crowd. The quarter continued with a succession of each team moving the ball a little then stalling and having to punt. There were four punts and only six first downs in the entire quarter.
However there were four big moments in the first quarter of note. The first big play came courtesy of Eagles free agent pickup DB Asante Samuel as he baited Falcons rookie Ryan into a throw towards receiver Roddy White with the veteran jumping the route for a nice interception on a third and 13 down near the Eagles 32-yard line. The officials were involved in the other two on-field as a big 17-yard Michael Turner run was negated by a Roddy White holding call and then the second coming when Eagles DE Trent Cole was called for a ridiculous unnecessary roughness flag for hitting Ryan. On the play just as the golden boy quarterback was throwing the ball Cole crashed into him chest high sending the young thrower reeling drawing the dubious flag. The bad call was a crowd-booing moment that caused many to call for quarterbacks to wear flags, so they couldn’t be tackled. The other moment that seemed to energize the crowd was a McNabb video montage and a hearty congratulations for passing former Eagles great Ron Jaworski in almost every Eagles passing category. But McNabb did not seem himself as he as only 2-6 for 13 yards in the quarter.
Second Quarter: Eagles 10 – Falcons 7, After a sloppy punt-worthy first quarter both teams seemed to settle down and get back to business in the second quarter. To start the quarter McNabb seeming to thrive off the crown threw a perfect 30-yard touch swing pass to DeSean Jackson. The Eagles then followed with a nice reverse to Westbrook for thirteen more yards with the mercurial back having “blocking” back McNabb out front. However that scoring threat was ended when McNabb was sacked by Falcons rookie linebacker Curtis Lofton and fumbled back to the Falcons. However the Eagles’ defense weathered the turnover by producing a quick Falcons’ three and out. The Eagles then followed form with the games sixth punt after another three and out which included a scary moment where McNabb was down after a hit from an eye problem.
The scoring drought finally ended at the 9:05 mark of the quarter when Ryan drilled a 55-yard post pattern touchdown pass to Roddy White between Samuel and safety Quentin Mikell. At first you thought the pass would never get past the Eagles DB’s, but give Ryan credit as he showed his big arm. After each team trading series with punts, the Eagles woke up and put together a 9-play, 60-yard, 3:53 minute drive ending with McNabb looking like his ’01 version running up the middle for a 5-yard touchdown run. After another Falcons’ stalled drive punter Michael Koenen pinned the Eagles at their 12-yard line 45 seconds left. With the halftime fast approaching, it was the Westbrook show as the newly back from injury runner ran 20 yards to the Eagles 32-yard line (timeout) then Westbrook caught a 9-yard pass from McNabb (second timeout w/ 28 seconds left). After Westbrook got them out of the shadow of their goalpost, a big illegal hands to the face penalty on Grady Jackson moved the ball to the Falcons forty-nine. McNabb then found his ’07 security blanket Kevin Curtis for the first time on an 11-yard pass to Falcons’ 38-yard line (third timeout). Looking like he finally settled-in even further, McNabb — finished half only 10-21 for 137 yards — then hit Jackson on another touch pass to the sideline this time for 20 yards as the flashy rookie got out of bounds to stop the clock with 12 seconds in the half. After an incompletion, Eagles kicker David Akers continued his mastery inside the 40-yard line by kicking a 36-yard field goal as the half expired.
Third Quarter: Eagles 17 – Falcons 7, The Eagles must have gotten an Andy Reid tongue-lashing after a sloppy first half as they were all-business at the start of the second half. After starting their own 31-yard line, the Eagles marched 69 yards down the field ending with a Westbrook 16-yard touchdown burst up the middle. The big plays on the drive was a McNabb to Curtis pass over the middle for 25 yards and a McNabb to TE LJ Smith for 21 yards. But the drive was clearly about the Eagles big offensive line wanting to the Falcons front seven as Westbrook ran three times for 25 yards including the score. From there a few punches were thrown here and there including the Falcons using RB Jerious Norwood in the ever popular “Wildcat” formation with most drives ending in punts. The Falcons did have a good drive going late in the quarter fuelled by penalties to DB Lito Sheppard (Pass Interference) and DE Juqua Parker (defensive holding). But Sheppard was vindicated from the “PI” call he was very unhappy about by intercepting a Ryan to White fade route in the endzone despite White draped all over him. The Eagles then followed with a great pass from McNabb to RB Correll Buckhalter for 27 yards, the physical back had lined up as a fullback fooling the Falcons’ coverage. The quarter ended with the Eagles punting again with punter Sav Rocca pinning the Falcons inside the 20-yard line again, this time at the 17-yard line.
Fourth Quarter:This quarter began with the Falcons holding the football and another ensuing punt, but you knew things still could get interesting. The Eagles did receive ball marching into the Falcons’ redzone, but they had to settle for another Akers close range field goal (18 yards) making the score 20-7 as they failed to punch it in from within the 5-yard line again. The drive’s biggest play occurred when McNabb was a little high causing TE LJ Smith to be defenceless in the air and Falcons veteran safety Lawyer Milloy taking advantage by driving a shoulder into Smith’s helmet. In a scary moment, the Eagles franchise tight end stayed down for a few moments then wobbly got up as the medical staff took him into the tunnel with an apparent concussion. Milloy was flagged 15-yards for unnecessary roughness and I am sure he will be hearing from the Commissioner’s office this week — In talking to Milloy after the game, the veteran said that the play happened so quickly and that he was not initially trying to hurt Smith.
Sensing the urgency the Falcons leaned on cool “Matty Ice” as the rookie looked every bit the part of the seasoned pro as he led his team down the field. On a crucial third and 13, the ice-cold rookie hit RB Jason Snelling for 18 yards then continued mixing in runs and short passes until the Falcons score on a Ryan to Roddy White 8-yard touchdown pass. The drive totalled 82 yards in 14 plays and took 4:02 minutes. With the game getting closer at 20-14, a definite sense of urgency filled the stadium and the feeling only got worse when the Eagles followed up the Falcons outburst with a quick three and out. But on the Rocca punt, the play of the game occurred. Falcons return man Adam Jennings muffed a punt with just over two minutes to go and Eagles LB Akeem Jordan recovered the ball. However on replays, Jennings appeared to avoid touching the ball and to the consternation of rookie head coach Mike Smith, unfortunately the Falcons were without timeouts and could not challenge the call. It only took two plays for the Eagles to take the fortuitous bounce and turn into points as Westbrook cemented the game by running 39 yards around the left for the games final score (Eagles 27, Falcons 14). Ryan tried vainly to rally the Falcons one last time as the team’s last drive ended at the Eagles 27-yard line with a fourth down incompletion to receiver Michael Jenkins.
The stars of the game were the invaluable Brian Westbrook – coming back from injury, he made everything go for the Eagles producing numbers of (22 rushing 167, 2 TDs with 6 catches for 42 yards – Donovan McNabb (19-34, 253 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT with 25 yards rushing including his first rushing touchdown since 2006) and extra corner Lito Sheppard – came out hand-in-hand during introductions with Sheldon Brown and produced 2 tackles and a huge interception.
For the Falcons, the game must serve as a learning experience for their head coach and quarterback Matt Ryan (23-44, 277 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs). Ryan in his homecoming was bruised, but hung tough after a rough first half to help his team fight back into fourth quarter contention.
Key Team Stats:
Eagles:Total Net Yards 432, 193 rushing yards, Penalties-Yards 7-70, Time of Possession 32:21, Total Turnovers 1
Falcons:Total Net Yards 335, 77 rushing yards, Penalties-Yards 6-51, Time of Possession 27:39, Total Turnovers 3
Milestones Reached:Eagles franchise 500th win (includes playoffs), head coach Andy Reid achieving 100 wins, QB Donovan McNabb running for 3,000 yards (eighth quarterback to attain that amount), and RB Brian Westbrook running for over 5,000 yards (joined Wilbert Montgomery and HOF Steve Van Buren as the only Eagles to reach that mark).
Final Analysis: Eagles 27, Falcons 14— This game showed what a veteran team can do when motivated. Both teams were sluggish coming off of a bye, but it was the Eagles who found a way to turn the bounces into their favour on the way to a possible season changing win. Both teams now stand at (4-3), but it is decision time to see if they are contenders or pretenders at the mid-point of the NFL season. In the second half of the NFL season, the Eagles must continue to win games to keep pace with the Giants (6-1), Redskins (6-2), and the Cowboys (5-3) in the NFC East, which we all know is the NFL’s toughest division. The Eagles next travel to the Seattle Seahawks (2-6) while the Falcons will look to get back on the road against the reeling Oakland Raiders (2-5).