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What we learned: Eagles sneak past Falcons in opener

The Philadelphia Eagles (1-0) mounted their title defense with an 18-12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons (0-1) on Thursday night. It wasn't easy, and it sure as heck wasn't pretty. Here's what we learned:

  1. The same teams. The same location. The same side of the field. The same type of deficit. The same intended receiver. And yes, the same result.

It was deju vu all over again for Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night, as their final drive of the game ended in the same fashion as their final attempt of the 2017 season. Down six points with just over two minutes to go, Atlanta mounted a drive into the red zone within eight plays. But as with almost every other red-zone possession they had against the Eagles on Thursday, the Falcons failed to convert. Ryan ended a poor first game with five straight incompletions, the last of which was a lofted attempt to Jones. The All-Pro wideout reeled in the pass, but was forced out of bounds by Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby as time expired.

It was a play symbolic of Atlanta's struggles on the evening -- the Falcons' chronic inefficiencies in the red zone, Ryan's reliance on Jones (10 receptions for 169 yards), the QB's questionable touch, etc. -- and one that will haunt a Falcons team that was desperate for revenge after last year's divisional round defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champs.

  1. Bad Nick Foles was in the building Thursday night, looking nothing like the quarterback who ran away with Super Bowl LII MVP honors. Starting for Carson Wentz, who has still yet to be cleared for contact, Foles averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per attempt against the Falcons, a full five YPA fewer than in last season's Big Game. Foles was missing his top wideout, Alshon Jeffery (out with a shoulder injury), but that's where the excuses end. His fourth-quarter interception that preceded Atlanta's first touchdown wasn't all his fault, but Foles lofted the attempt to rookie Dallas Goedert just long enough for Falcons center fielder Damontae Kazee to break up the pass into the hands of his Atlanta teammate. Foles lacked zip, poise and confidence in the season opener, something that should concern the Eagles if Wentz's absence bleeds into October.
  1. Given Foles' very evident struggles from the get-go, it was surprising that Philadelphia didn't lean on its ground game. Jay Ajayi led the Eagles in rushing (62 yards) and scored both of their touchdowns, but barely saw the ball in the first quarter. Darren Sproles (32 total yards) was a threat with the ball in his hands, but saw only nine touches. The same could be said of Corey Clement, who broke out in the Super Bowl, but earned only five touches for 26 yards. Look for Pederson and first-year OC Mike Groh to switch up the run-pass breakdown in Philly's Week 2 clash in Tampa Bay.
  1. The red zone woes that plagued Atlanta all last season are back and as frustrating as ever. The Falcons made five trips inside the 20-yard line and came away with just nine points. After trying to feed Devonta Freeman and avoiding Julio to no avail on Atlanta's first-quarter red-zone drives, embattled offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian switched it up in the final frame -- but the strategy was equally ineffective. Ryan threw a pick in Jones' direction early in the fourth quarter and overshot the receiver twice at the end of the game. How Atlanta solves this endemic inability to finish drives and games is TBD.
  1. Shut down early by Darby (three passes defensed), Julio persevered through tough coverage to break out for a monster opener, especially down the stretch. Jones finished with 10 receptions on an absurd 19(!) targets for 169 yards. But that was partially due to Ryan's inability to connect with his other pass catchers. Mohamed Sanu finished with four catches for 18 yards, tight end Austin Hooper recorded three for 24 yards and rookie wideout Calvin Ridley couldn't translate his preseason hype into a breakout opener, racking up zero receptions on just two targets.
  1. Philadelphia's front seven: Still nasty. Fletcher Cox's impact was much larger than what the stat sheet shows (one sack). In his first game back from injury, Jordan Hicks recorded a vicious sack over the top of a blocking Freeman. Chris Long had 1.5 sacks and Brandon Graham tallied two tackles for loss. The Eagles' defense will not suffer a Super Bowl hangover.
  1. Oh, you thought the catch rule was fixed? That's cute. Ryan's third-quarter deep heave to Jones along the sidelines reignited the "What is a catch?" controversy that has raged incessantly in league circles for years. Jones looked to have secured possession of the ball while falling to the ground and sliding out of bounds, but the pass was ruled incomplete on the field. Upon review, the play stood, and the internet threw up its hands in bewilderment.
  1. Nelson Agholor finished with a higher passer rating (118.8) than Foles (50.7) and Ryan (57.4) combined, thanks to this familiar play.
  1. Big night for the referees. The Falcons and Eagles combined for 26 penalties on the night, further prolonging a game that started late and ended way past the bedtime of young fans who were reeled into Thursday's Kickoff Game by the irresistible siren songs of Shawn Mendes.
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