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Underdog Eagles shut down Falcons to advance to NFC championship game

Underdog Eagles shut down Falcons to advance to NFC championship game
Atlanta's Julio Jones cannot catch a potential game-winning touchdown pass against Philadelphia's Jalen Mills in the final minute of their NFC divisional playoff game. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

The Atlanta Falcons broke the huddle, two yards away from victory, and All-Pro receiver Julio Jones lined up on the right side.

Philadelphia cornerback Jalen Mills — his team clinging to a five-point lead — couldn't hear a sound, even though the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field was loud as a jet engine.

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"Can't hear the crowd, but you can feel them," Mills would say later. "You can feel that energy. The ground felt like it was shaking out there, it was so loud. When they broke the huddle and I saw [Jones] come to my side, I said, 'I know where the ball's coming.'

"As a true competitor, you love that. You live and die for that."

The Philadelphia Eagles lived, as Jones slipped in the end zone, climbed to his feet, then — with Mills in close coverage — was unable to reel in a high pass from Matt Ryan. The Eagles got the ball back, and gleefully ran out the clock.

Questioned, doubted, written off without injured quarterback Carson Wentz, the Eagles survived a huge test Saturday, defending a point-blank, fourth-down pass for Jones with 58 seconds left to hold off the Falcons, 15-10, and deny them a return trip to the NFC championship game.

"It just didn't work out, and that's disappointing," Ryan said of the play, a sprint-out to the right. "That's the life that you kind of live as a competitor when you get in those situations. You want the ball in your hand. We're disappointed that we didn't make the play, but I thought it was a good call. It felt like we had the right players in mind, and the right time."

The Eagles, in the NFC championship for the first time since 2009, will play host to the winner of Sunday's game between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings, with a spot in Super Bowl LII on the line.

Philadelphia was the first No. 1 seed to be an underdog to a No. 6 in the divisional round. Eagles Lane Johnson and Chris Long embraced the role, buying menacing, rubber German Shepard masks on Amazon that they stashed on the sideline and pulled on after the game.

Like those masks, the game wasn't a thing of beauty for the Eagles, but the outcome was. They're happy with winning ugly, even if it means weathering four fumbles in the first 1½ quarters — one was a muffed punt — and inching away with three field goals by Jake Elliott (who earlier clanked an extra point off an upright).

"At the end of the day, it was a team win," said defensive end Long, who won a Super Bowl with New England last season by beating these Falcons. "It was gritty. It was ugly at times. But when the offense had to get points, they got points. Defense, we kept getting stops. Offensively, we were able to run the ball, and we were able to possess the ball. That was huge."

The Eagles were able to play keep-away, winning the time-of-possession battle by nearly five minutes. That was especially effective on a frigid night, when they were able to grind down Atlanta's defense while leaving Ryan & Co. shivering on the sideline.

Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles, who at times looked like a massive liability in place of Wentz, acquitted himself well, especially when it came to executing the run-pass-option in the second half. He finished 23 of 30 for 246 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions but an impressive passer rating of 100.1.

Ryan, who was raised in Philadelphia, never got in a rhythm, in part because he was harassed all night by the Eagles, who sacked him three times and hit him many more. He completed 22 of 36 for 210 yards, a touchdown and a modest 86.6 rating.

The Falcons were never the high-flying offense they were last season, when Ryan was named the NFL's most valuable player. He dropped to 1-4 at Lincoln Financial Field.

Atlanta ran the ball just nine times in the second half and couldn't get the job done with the pass when it counted most.

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That's not to say the Falcons didn't put a scare in this city. Trailing by five with 6:02 left, they took over at their 24 and marched all the way to the brink of the goal line.

With 1:19 remaining, they had a first-and-goal at the Philadelphia nine. Two incomplete passes followed. On third and goal, Ryan fired a seven-yard pass over the middle to a diving Jones. Although it looked as though the ball might have moved when it contacted the ground, the catch held up to a Philadelphia challenge.

That set up the now-or-never play from the two. No dice.

It was the biggest play of Mills' young career. He's a second-year corner selected in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. He's instantly recognizable, too, because of the top of his dark hair is dyed bright green. It's something he started doing as a rookie in training camp.

"I saw a couple people in the stands had green wigs on," he said. "I saw one guy who had a green Mohawk just like mine. That just shows you how close these Philly fans pay attention to the players and how much they love us."

After his clutch play Saturday, Mills could see half the city sporting his hairdo now.

"Hope so," he said. "Hope I started something."

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

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