Tipping Points: Week 2
by Scott Spratt
Perhaps in penance for hiding the best Week 1 finish until Monday night, Week 2 of the NFL delivered more exciting games than I can handle. I'll get into five really good ones here, but check out Rivers McCown's Any Given Sunday column tomorrow for a detailed breakdown of the wild Seahawks-at-Steelers finish.
Game of the Week
Chargers at Lions
The Philip Rivers-era Chargers have had more than their fair share of poor luck and critical mistakes to squander the seasons of some exceptional teams by DVOA. Their 2017 team epitomized that trend. They opened that year with four straight losses, three of them by three or fewer points, two of them ending with rookie kicker Younghoe Koo missing potential game-tying 44-yard field goal attempts. They followed that poor start with a 9-3 stretch but fell a game short of the Chiefs in the AFC West and lost playoff tiebreakers to both the nine-win Titans and Bills, the latter of which they had beaten head to head earlier in the season. Despite their 31st-ranked special teams, the Chargers were No. 11 in overall DVOA that year. The Titans were 18th and the Bills 2first.
I'm making Chargers fans relive that trauma because halfway through the Lions game on Sunday, the team seemed to have exorcized those demons. As Bryan Knowles pointed out in Audibles, the Colts and Lions missed five field goal or extra point attempts in six quarters against the Chargers to start this season. That had the Bolts up 10-6 at the beginning of the third quarter when Matthew Stafford threw a 40-yard jump ball in the end zone. The 6-foot-4, 214-pound Kenny Golladay enjoyed a massive size advantage over the 5-foot-11, 192-pound Casey Hayward, but even offensive pass interference couldn't prevent Hayward from securing that interception. The Chargers were in control, but they are still the Chargers, so their good early-season fortunes quickly faded.
They moved the ball with ease on the subsequent drive, gaining a ridiculous 172 yards that penalties turned into 77. Fate just would not let them score. Justin Jackson scampered 60 yards down the sideline, aided by second-level blocks from left guard Dan Feeney and wideout Dontrelle Inman. But Inman blocked a bit too well and erased the second half of the run with an offensive holding penalty.
Two plays later, Austin Ekeler took a screen pass 22 yards for the score, but that play was nullified by an illegal block in the back.
Still, the Chargers were poised to overcome those penalties with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Ekeler took the carry and tried to leap over the line for the score. Instead, he was stripped by linebacker Jahlani Tavai and the Lions recovered, avoiding the third of the Chargers' three bids to score.
Those repeated failures could have demoralized the Chargers, but they recovered quickly, forcing a Lions three-and-out and gaining 8, 9, 9, and 9 yards on four straight plays to start their next drive. They were a yard away from the red zone on third-and-3 when tight end Virgil Green got open. But Philip Rivers missed him, and his animated reactions suggest that Green may have run the wrong route or made the wrong route adjustment.
That was far from the most important Chargers second-half miscue, but it may be the one most attributable to bad luck. Starting tight end Hunter Henry missed this game after fracturing his tibial plateau with less than a minute to go in the team's Week 1 win. Rivers and Green likely had not had much work together in the preseason, and that may have contributed to their miscommunication.
Still, the Chargers were well-positioned to kick a field goal that would have increased their lead to seven. However, backup kicker Ty Long doinked the 39-yard attempt off the left upright. Normal kicker Michael Badgley missed his second game to start the season with a groin injury, and this week, that proved to be costly.
There was just over two minutes left in the quarter when the Lions regained possession and Stafford took just his fourth play under center of the second half. Perhaps he was antsy from all the time his offense was stuck on the bench because just one play later, he unloaded a deep ball to Marvin Jones. Stafford had no trouble throwing the pass 50 yards in the air, but that turned out to be a few yards too many. Free safety Rayshawn Jenkins jumped and adjusted his body like a receiver to come down with another Stafford interception.
That left just under a minute in the quarter, which the Chargers extinguished with a pair of Ekeler runs. In total in the third quarter, the Chargers intercepted Stafford twice, forced a three-and-out, (temporarily) scored two touchdowns, came within a yard of another, and attempted a field goal. And yet, somehow, they ended the period with the same 10-6 lead with which they had started it.
The Chargers had to have higher hopes for the fourth quarter, especially after they started it with an acrobatic third-and-3 conversion that Mike Williams secured for an 18-yard gain. Williams found his way onto fantasy football radars thanks to 10 touchdowns in his sophomore 2018 season, but his five catches in two weeks so far in 2019 would be the career highlight reel for a lot of NFL receivers. He should be more involved in future weeks after he fully recovers from a knee injury that had him questionable for this contest.
Dontrelle Inman had an easier time with his subsequent 28-yard catch after a sharp cut created separation from safety Quandre Diggs, who seemed to be expecting an out or corner route down the left sideline. Ekeler followed that up with nine hard-earned yards on a pair of runs, the first to the right and the second to the left. That set up a third-and-1 at the Lions' 23, but with no one open, Rivers was forced to throw the ball away and give way to another Ty Long field goal try. Long overcorrected from his previous miss, going wide right from 41 yards out.
The Chargers were stuck on 10 points, and the Lions were finally starting to move the ball on offense. On a second-and-6, running back Kerryon Johnson secured a short catch and dodged a trio of would-be tacklers with a jump, a spin, and a sharp cut to gain 11 yards.
Golladay followed that up with another stick-moving completion and then nearly another on a subsequent third-and-6. Cornerback Brandon Facyson reacted quickly on that latter catch and made an immediate tackle that forced a fourth-and-1. The four-point deficit may have made this an easier decision than usual, but much-maligned head coach Matt Patricia made a great call leaving his offense on the field, increasing his team's Game-Winning Chance (GWC) from 32.8% to 35.9% with a pass attempt. Stafford likely made Patricia nervous by choosing to zip one into Marvin Jones in double-coverage, but Jones secured it for a critical conversion.
It didn't take long for the Lions to enjoy the reward from their fourth-down risk. The very next play, Stafford hit Golladay for a 31-yard touchdown that covered its 30 air yards in less than two seconds. Golladay's size helped that time as he boxed out the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Desmond King. Following the extra point, the Lions suddenly had a three-point lead with 7:21 remaining.
Things were looking a bit dire for the Chargers when they started their next drive with a couple of incomplete passes, but Rivers showed off his trademark wheels on third-and-10, scrambling 12 yards for a first down.
Rivers nearly followed that play with a 30-yard gainer to Keenan Allen. Allen had a step on cornerback Justin Coleman, but Rivers threw it a yard past his outstretched hands. Allen diving just short of an overthrown ball was a common sight on the day as the normally precise Rivers completed just 58.3% of his passes, a fraction less than expected on his throws according to Next Gen Stats.
Running back Justin Jackson kept the drive going, shooting through the A gap for nine untouched yards and then another three after he crashed into safety Tracy Walker at full speed. Two plays later, Williams came down with another jump ball, this one thrown from Rivers' back foot, and with corner Rashaan Melvin draped on his back. Three plays after that, Allen converted a critical third-and-5, ducking under a fast-closing Darius Slay to avoid a big hit and gaining 11 yards. Even after Jackson lost 4 yards on the ensuing first down, the Chargers were well-positioned with a 45.6% GWC on second-and-14 on the Lions' 23 coming out of the two-minute warning.
Given the stakes of the situation as well as the down and distance, the Chargers bet on a Lions blitz and threw a screen pass to Ekeler. But the Lions were ready for it, and the safety Diggs tackled Ekeler in bounds for no gain. The Chargers were content to let the clock run -- in fact, they were too content because they allowed the play clock to expire and took a delay of game penalty that took them from a dicey third-and-14 to a seemingly insurmountable third-and-19.
Penalty aside, the clock management was good. The Chargers were limiting how much time the Lions would have to answer a made field goal. With a field goal attempt where they were, the Chargers retained a better than 1-in-4 chance of winning. And if they could have taken the clock down to 30 seconds with a run or a pass completion on third down, they would have had better than a 1-in-3 chance. But perhaps because of Long's previous second-half misses or perhaps because Rivers has the hubris, he threw the third-down pass to Allen in double-coverage in the left corner of the end zone. Darius Slay made an easy interception to effectively seal the Lions victory.
Still with three timeouts left, the Chargers could have gotten another chance on offense if they could have prevented the Lions from getting a first down. Instead, Stafford used a play-action fake on third-and-6 and hit tight end Jesse James for 7 yards and a conversion. From there, he ended the game by taking a knee.
The Chargers at times had a greater than 80% chance of winning this game in both the third and fourth quarters, and given their history of untimely mistakes, their failures will earn them more scrutiny than the Lions' successes. But the Chargers drew a reprieve in the form of a second Steelers' loss and injury to Ben Roethlisberger that could erase one of the other four AFC contenders from the preseason DVOA top 10, An out-of-conference road loss won't dramatically hamper their playoff chances. Meanwhile, the Lions earned the scorn of fans everywhere with their inability to close what seemed like an easy win over the Cardinals in Week 1. But suddenly, they are 1-0-1 and in the mix in what could be a closely contested NFC North. They will face stern tests to stay there in Philadelphia and at home against Kansas City the next two weeks.
The Best of the Rest
Bears at Broncos
The first half of a game between last year's No. 1 and No. 5 DVOA defenses went as one would expect with just nine total points, all from field goals. That defensive struggle continued with a pair of punts in the teams' respective opening drives of the second half, but then the Bears broke through with a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive keyed by a 46-yard Cordarrelle Patterson run. On that play, Patterson lined up and took a pitch as a running back, and then he simply outran what may be the fastest defense in football. Patterson, the former first-round receiver-turned-return-specialist, served as an emergency running back for the Patriots for two games in 2018 after both Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel went down with injuries, and he was exceptional in that role, adding 114 DYAR on the ground, 18th-most of all players despite taking just 42 carries. In his seventh year in the league, Patterson may have found his calling on offense, and Matt Nagy may be the head coach creative enough to allow it to happen.
Down 10 to an historically great defense with just a quarter and change to go, the Broncos were in a tough spot. But Joe Flacco hit Noah Fant, Emmanuel Sanders, and Troy Fumagalli in quick succession to move the Broncos to the Bears' 32 at the start of the fourth quarter. On the brink of being stuck with a difficult long field goal, the Broncos were handed a gift in the form of a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty on defensive tackle Eddie Goldman to turn what would have been a third-and-long into a first down on the Bears' 14.
Three incompletions later, Brandon McManus got to kick a 32-yarder, a chip shot in the Denver altitude. The make cut the Broncos' deficit to a single score with 13 and a half minutes left, and they quickly earned another shot on offense after forcing the Bears to go three-and-out.
That nearly ended after the Broncos' own three-and-out, but Flacco was able to squeeze a third-and-9 pass into a tight window down the right sideline to Courtland Sutton to convert. He converted another first down two plays later, when a Flacco duck -- forced by contact from Goldman -- landed fortuitously in the hands of Fant. Safety Eddie Jackson stopped DaeSean Hamilton 2 yards shy of a first down on the subsequent third-and-8, but new head coach Vic Fangio chose to go for it, and Flacco converted with a swing pass to running back Phillip Lindsay. It was far from the most aggressive play call of the Broncos' fourth quarter.
The Broncos gained 39 of the remaining 41 yards needed for a touchdown on their next six plays -- overcoming an offensive hold in the process -- and lined up for a third-and-goal from 2 yards away. There, Flacco airmailed a short throw to Emmanuel Sanders right into the hands of cornerback Kyle Fuller. Had it not been for Sanders' quick reaction that forced him out of bounds, Fuller likely would have taken the interception 99 yards for a game-sealing pick-six.
It was a massive mistake from Flacco, but his defense remained engaged. They forced a punt after a single first down, which returned the ball to their offense with 2:48 left and one timeout remaining. Returner Diontae Spencer set the offense up nicely with a 17-yard return, and then running back Royce Freeman took the first-down swing pass 19 yards into Bears territory.
Three incompletions later, the Broncos were staring at a fourth-and-10 they had to convert, and Flacco again found sophomore receiver Sutton just beyond the sticks. That left the Broncos 33 yards from the end zone at the two-minute warning. It was a manageable situation that allowed Flacco to throw the ball short on each of his next five attempts, but a pair of incompletions on first and third down stuck the Broncos with another fourth down, this one on the Bears' 12 with 3 yards to gain. And for the third time in the second half, Flacco went to Sutton in that situation, and Sutton adjusted beautifully to a ball thrown a bit too far upfield. He pulled in the catch just inches before it would have hit the defender Fuller in the chest.
On the ensuing first-and-goal from the 7, Flacco was due for an accurate pass. He dropped the ball in the perfect spot in the back right corner of the end zone, and Sanders secured it as he crashed to the ground, his feet just inside and dislodging the back pylon. It wasn't quite the same stakes, but the play was reminiscent of the Santonio Holmes catch that secured the Steelers a Super Bowl XLIII victory over the Cardinals.
With 31 seconds left in the quarter, most coaches would happily take an extra point and head to overtime with the momentum. But Fangio had already demonstrated his aggressive play-calling tendencies in getting his Broncos to within a point of a tie, and he instead opted to go for two to try to win in regulation. The roller coaster that followed was a much crazier ride than even the hectic fourth quarter. First, the Broncos took a delay of game, which pushed them back from the 2-yard line and flipped their strategy to a kicked extra point. McManus missed that kick wide right, but he and the Broncos were bailed out by a defensive offsides. That returned the ball to the 1-yard line, where Fangio reverted to a two-point attempt. And on that attempt, Flacco threw a strike to Sanders cutting to the right side of the end zone, giving the Broncos the one-point lead.
The normal calculus of the decision to kick an extra point or go for two is complicated enough with time left on the clock for the Bears to try to answer. But it became even more complicated by the Broncos' yo-yoing from the 2-, to the 7-, to the 1-yard lines. With the help of their GWC model, EdjSports Co-Founder Frank Frigo ran the scenarios and estimated that the Broncos would need to convert on 53% of their two-point conversions to break even against simply kicking an extra point. That number is buoyed a bit by the Bears' likely decision to play conservatively if the game had been tied with 31 seconds remaining versus the reality that they were down by a point and forced to air it out to try to get into field goal range. Given that teams typically convert on about 48% of their standard two-point attempts, the Broncos would likely have benefited from a decision to kick on the initial 2-yard line. But on the 1-yard line after the penalty, the decision to go for it was close to a 50/50 proposition. And it seemed all but assured they would win after they converted.
The Broncos became the first team to convert a 2-point attempt down 1 in the 4th quarter and still lose since the NFL adopted the 2-point conversion in 1994, according to @EliasSports. pic.twitter.com/zeTnoiBHSy
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 16, 2019
Mitchell Trubisky needed just 35 yards on a final drive to get kicker Eddy Pineiro into his field goal range, but that felt like 3,500. To that point, he had just 90 yards passing for the game. But his objective became much more attainable after Bradley Chubb was penalized for roughing the passer on first down, advancing the Bears to their own 45 with 24 seconds left. It was another questionable call, but Broncos fans can take some solace in the fact that it counterbalanced the similar call that went in their favor in the third quarter.
From there, Trubisky needed just one great throw to give his kicker a chance to win, and with nine seconds left on fourth-and-15, he made that throw. Evading light pressure by stepping up in the pocket, Trubisky made the throw on the run just before he crossed the line of scrimmage. He hit Allen Robinson in a hole in the zone 25 yards down the field, and the Bears called timeout with a single second left on the clock.
No doubt Bears fans were brimming with confidence when Pineiro lined up a 53-yarder in a hostile stadium. He snuck the kick in just over the left edge of the crossbar, perhaps saving the Bears' and ending the Broncos' seasons.
Jaguars at Texans
I detailed the Broncos-Bears game before the Jaguars-Texans game even though it occurred later in the day because it ended in a very similar situation, and I wanted to emphasize the process over the results. It was also a similar style of game between No. 1 and No. 3 projected DVOA defensive teams for 2019. Seven of the first eight drives of the first half ended in punts, and the first five drives of the second half did the same. But momentum shifted in the fourth quarter when Gardner Minshew dropped back to pass and was strip-sacked from behind by Whitney Mercilus. After recovering, the Texans were set up with a first-and-10 from the Jaguars' 11. The Jaguars' defense made a commendable effort to stop Carlos Hyde short of the line to gain on a third-and-2, but they couldn't keep Deshaun Watson out of the end zone on a designed fourth-down run.
That left the Jaguars with 11 and a half minutes to try to try to erase a 10-point deficit. They made some progress to that effect on their subsequent drive thanks to back-to-back big plays; the first a 31-yard pass to Chris Conley (who snuck his feet down in bounds between cornerback Jonathan Joseph and the sidelines), the second a 29-yard pass to Dede Westbrook (who spun nicely to adjust to a ball thrown short to his outside shoulder). But that latter play was erased by an offensive pass interference penalty, leaving the Jaguars with a tricky first-and-20.
Running back Leonard Fournette carried them from there, turning a catch 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage into a 20-yard gain and a first down and then a similar catch behind the line into 13 yards and another first down. An offensive hold stalled the drive, but Josh Lambo still connected on a 32-yard field goal and made it a one-score game.
Six minutes was a lot of time for the Texans to try to kill on their next possession in such a defensive-minded game. Darren Fells spun to avoid a tackle and pick up one first down, and the Texans seemed to have another on a 14-yard third-down slant pass to Kenny Stills. But that play was nullified by an offensive tripping penalty, and that forced the Texans to punt the ball back to the Jaguars one play later with 3:36 left in the game.
The Jaguars seemed content to play that next possession as their last, starting the drive with four consecutive handoffs to Fournette. He rewarded them with a close fourth-down conversion that was upheld upon review. Two plays later, Minshew connected with receiver Chris Conley, throwing on the run, and then a play later with D.J. Chark, also toward the right sideline. Those plays combined for 26 yards and set the Jaguars up in Houston territory with 1:11 left to go.
Minshew missed on throws on first and second down, and then Conley dropped what would have been a first-down conversion on third down. That put the Jaguars in a dire position on a fourth-and-10 with just a 7.8% GWC. But Minshew did his best Blake Bortles impersonation -- but the good kind -- and scrambled 18 yards down the right sideline. That left the Jaguars with a first-and-10 from the Texans' 13 with 43 seconds and no timeouts.
A Texans' penalty and an avoided sack-and-scramble later, Minshew lofted a pass on second-and-1 over a Texans defense who expected another scramble. Minshew hit an open Chark for the touchdown, pulling the Jaguars within one point and putting them in an incredibly similar position to where the Broncos would find themselves a few hours later. There were 30 seconds left in the game, which offered the Texans a small-but-realistic chance to answer a successful two-point conversion. Like the Broncos, the Jaguars opted to go for the win in regulation, but without the benefit of a penalty that set them up on the 1-yard line, Fournette came up inches short on a last-second lunge for the lead. Free safety Justin Reid did an amazing job holding his ground against Fournette and also shielded the sideline camera from providing evidence that could have overturned the initial call on what was an incredibly close play.
Nine times in 10, NFL coaches err on the side of conservative play, so it was unfortunate to see two aggressive play calls lead to two losses. But the specter of the half a minute remaining for both the Bears and the Texans to potentially answer a two-point conversion created a downside to the aggressive decisions that the Broncos and Jaguars may have underestimated. In particular in the Jaguars game, the small difference between a two-point attempt from the 1- versus the 2-yard line can also make a massive difference in an offense's chances to convert. It was a tough way to fall to 0-2, but the Jaguars have to be pleased by their defense's rebound from a dismantling by the Chiefs and the rookie Minshew's clutch play in the fourth quarter. I wouldn't count them out of their division race.
Colts at Titans
The Jaguars and Texans weren't the only AFC South teams destined for an exciting finish on Sunday. The Colts looked neither affected by their heartbreaking Week 1 loss to the Chargers nor intimidated by the Browns-stifling Titans. They put together a pair of 70-plus-yard touchdown drives in their first three possessions and carried a 13-7 lead into the second half. Then a three-and-out gave way to a nice return and a short touchdown drive for the Titans, who extended that new lead to four after recovering a fumble from a sacked Jacoby Brissett in Colts territory and kicking a field goal.
The Colts continued to languish on offense on their next two possessions, gaining just 12 and 5 yards and punting twice after just nine total plays. But the Titans failed to capitalize on their excellent defensive play, first yanking a 45-yard field goal attempt wide left and then going three-and-out.
That set the Colts back up on offense with 6:41 left in the fourth quarter, and running back Marlon Mack produced 10 of his 63 total yards with a catch and a carry that led to a first down. But on the next play, the Colts proved wise to stick with their ground game despite their previous inefficiencies against the Titans' No. 7 DAVE defense because backup runner Jordan Wilkins went straight up the middle for 55 yards.
Wilkins was chased out of bounds still 4 yards from the end zone, but Brissett wasted no time in scoring the touchdown. He hit T.Y. Hilton for the score in the back-left of the end zone, just over the outstretched hands of cornerback Malcolm Butler. Adam Vinatieri missed another extra point -- and considered retiring after the game -- but the Colts were still up by two.
After receiving the kick, the Titans had 4:38 to try to answer, and they still had 3:38 and three timeouts when they opted to take a delay of game and punt from a fourth-and-6 on their own 29 rather than going for it on fourth-and-1. Typically, that would be a strategic mistake, turning a 52.6% GWC with a run into a 35.6% GWC with a punt, but the Titans defense came up big on the ensuing Colts drive. They stopped Mack for a 3-yard loss after a defensive offsides penalty made it first-and-5. They avoided disaster when Brissett overthrew Hilton streaking down the left sideline by an eyelash. And they stopped Brissett a yard shy of a scrambling first down on third-and-8. On that play, linebacker Jayon Brown made what would have been the play of the game had the ensuing two and half minutes played out differently. He was the only defender with a chance to stop Brissett short of a first down, and he deftly avoided offensive tackle Braden Smith trying to block him and held Brissett up half a yard short of the line to gain.
Playing more aggressively than the opposing Titans, Colts' head coach Frank Reich decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 35. As fans, we are almost never treated to such an aggressive call, but it was unquestionably the right decision. Compared to a punt, a carry increased the Colts' GWC from 50.1% to 93.8%. And Reich was quickly rewarded when Brissett converted a quarterback sneak. Two Titans timeouts and the two-minute warning forced the Colts to eventually punt, but instead of having close to two and a half minutes and several ways to stop the clock, the Titans had just 1:07 without a timeout when they started their last drive from their own 28.
Mariota gave the Titans life when he did what he does best, scrambling for 15 yards on a second-and-6 to set his team up on their own 47 with 31 seconds left. But A.J. Brown failed to get out of bounds on a second-and-10 catch, which forced a third-down spike and set up a fourth-and-2 that the Titans had to try to convert, still on the Colts' 45 and 10 yards outside of Cairo Santos' field goal range. Without a timeout, the Titans needed to either get out of bounds after a shorter first-down conversion or gain at least 10 yards so they could spike the ball inside of Santos' range. They chose the latter option, but Mariota threw high to Brown. He got his hands on the pass, but in heavy traffic, Brown couldn't secure it. The Titans turned the ball over on downs, and with just 11 seconds left, Brissett kneeled to end the game.
After a close loss and a close win, the Colts are 1-1 on the season. They clearly have the roster talent and depth to remain competitive despite the unexpected retirement of star quarterback Andrew Luck. And if I had to wager, I'd expect the Colts to win at least half of their close games the rest of this season. Reich demonstrated a rare willingness to make the best strategic decision for his team's chances in a situation where its failure would create an overwhelming backlash against him. He deserves the positive result he got.
Eagles at Falcons
If you watched the Sunday night game, then you know all about the Falcons' dismal recent history against the Eagles. They lost 15-18 in Philadelphia in the 2016 regular season. They lost 10-15 in Philadelphia in the divisional round of the 2017 playoffs after getting to first-and-goal from the 9 with 1:19 left in the fourth quarter but failing to score. And they lost 10-18 in Philadelphia in the Week 1 opener last season, infamously reaching first-and-goal from the 10 with 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter and throwing five straight incompletions, the last of which was awarded on an illegal contact penalty. Finally with a home game against their new rival, they needed a win seemingly more for their self-confidence than for their playoff aspirations.
Things were beginning to look grim after the Falcons gave away a 17-6 lead they held in the third quarter despite the Eagles losing receivers DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Dallas Goedert for the game and Carson Wentz taking a shot to the ribs that led to some badly missed throws. Matt Ryan threw a baffling jump ball interception from his back foot on a third-and-9 from his own 10 that set the Eagles up on Atlanta's 27.
Six plays later, Wentz hit his de facto No. 1 wideout Nelson Agholor through a tiny window between two defenders for a touchdown. That cut the deficit to 12-17, and the Eagles tried for two to make it a field goal game. Wentz faked a handoff and appeared to dive in for the conversion, but after a review, the call was overturned with Wentz's right knee coming down just before the ball broke the plane.
Atlanta almost immediately returned the ball to the Eagles' offense when tight end Luke Stocker went head over heels and fumbled. Somehow, Mohamed Sanu recovered the fumble as the only Falcon among the five players closest to the loose ball.
The Falcons came close to sealing a win with Calvin Ridley getting a hand on a 50-yard pass in the end zone between double-coverage and then with Ito Smith making a couple of sharp cuts to freeze defenders and gain 28 yards to put the Falcons inside the red zone.
But two plays later, Ryan made another terrible decision, throwing the ball directly to linebacker Nathan Gerry in the end zone.
From there, the Eagles and Falcons traded three-and-outs as the game entered the fourth quarter. And the Eagles almost did so again facing a third-and-3 on their own 34, but Agholor made a spectacular leaping catch to haul in a Wentz pass that would have been a foot too high for an average receiver.
Wentz kept the third-down magic alive with subsequent conversions on third-and-6 (a 16-yard pass to Mack Hollins), third-and-9 (an unbelievable 17-yard strike to Hollins as Vic Beasley dragged him to the ground), and third-and-1 (a quarterback sneak). Those three conversions put them on the doorstep of a touchdown with first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Wentz snuck that in and then found Zach Ertz for a two-point conversion, putting the Eagles up three with 3:13 for the Falcons to try to answer.
On the ensuing drive, defensive encroachment earned the Falcons a critical conversion on a third-and-1 from their own 34. And after Ryan missed on his checkdown to Devonta Freeman on a subsequent third-and-3, the Falcons were left with a fourth down from their own 46 that they had to convert to stay alive. Cue Julio Jones.
Jones scored so quickly that he left the Eagles plenty of time to answer, 2:03 with two timeouts and the two-minute warning. But Agholor alligator-armed what would likely have been a game-winning touchdown.
He redeemed himself by catching a 43-yard rainmaker over the top of the defense, and that got the Eagles to first-and-10 from the Falcons' 18 with 1:11 left. There, Wentz overthrew Hollins in the end zone on what may have been a miscommunication. Next, Wentz gained just 2 yards on a short strike to Darren Sproles and overthrew Ertz on the left sideline, 2 yards beyond the line to gain. That created a fourth-and-8 with 38 seconds left where Wentz hit Ertz on the doorstep of a first down. But cornerback Isaiah Oliver closed on Ertz quickly and brought him down just short of the first down. The turnover on downs allowed the Falcons to kneel for the win.
Despite narrowly avoiding a loss seven different ways, the Falcons erased the memory of their dismantling by the Vikings in Week 1 and may even be the new favorite in the hard-luck NFC South that includes a Saints team that may have lost Drew Brees for the next six weeks. That race may take another few months to unfold as the Falcons continue their bizarre first-half schedule, which features three straight AFC South opponents and three straight NFC West opponents between now and their Week 9 bye. They don't play a game in their division until a Week 10 trip to New Orleans, which coincidentally could be Brees' first game back.