PHILADELPHIA -- It was the biggest play of the season, and the Eagles' defense knew exactly what was coming.
Safety Rodney McLeod remembered it from the week's preparations. The Eagles repped this play during practice on Friday and again during the walk-through on Saturday, he said. It was a favorite of the Atlanta Falcons in short yardage, particularly in the red zone. Considering the situation -- fourth-and-goal at the 2 with 1 minute, 5 seconds remaining and Philly up by five points in the divisional-round matchup -- the Eagles suspected a Matt Ryan sprint out was coming. When they saw the formation, they knew it.
"You're expecting pass. The only passes you really get out of two-back formations is move-the-pocket," safety Malcolm Jenkins explained. "You eliminate all the plays that aren't going to come, and we were able to recognize that pretty much before they even came out of the huddle."
McLeod added his explanation.
"As soon as I saw the tight end come over [in motion], I was like, 'There it is,'" McLeod said. "This is everything you dream of as a player, you do your studying, you do your preparing, and they come out and run the identical play. And the guys did a good job of stopping it, man.”
Ryan's first two reads were taken away, per Jenkins. Atlanta standout receiver Julio Jones and corner Jalen Mills were jousting in the right side of the end zone. Jones fell at one point, then got up and moved toward the back corner for a jump ball. With Mills in front of him, the high pass glanced off Jones' fingers and fell incomplete, cementing a 15-10 Eagles victory and a berth in the NFC Championship Game.
“They communicated all the way from [Ronald] Darby's side to my side," Mills said. "You can’t do nothing but be thankful for having those veteran safeties that are able to ID formations."
Mills said the ground beneath their feet was literally shaking during that fourth-down play. With the game in the balance, the Lincoln Financial Field crowd turned its energy all the way up, adding to this big, chaotic scene to decide the season.
Just before that, there was a moment for reflection and relative tranquility as a Ryan-Jones completion was being reviewed. Jenkins used it to deliver a message.
"'This is it. This is our season. Right here.' I wanted the guys to feel that moment," he said. "It's one of those things where, you dream about stuff like that where, literally, you make the play, you move on; you don't, you go home.
"To have the whole season kind of on our backs is the most comfortable situation we've ever been in, and it's because we have so much faith in the guys next to us, the guys in front of us, that we didn't bat an eye. I'm so proud to be a part of that unit."
That faith has been forged over the course of a season. As the broadcast pointed out, coordinator Jim Schwartz's defensive unit has allowed zero points in the final two minutes of a game all season. As Saturday's stand showed, it's a result of preparation, talent and desire.
As you compile reasons for why this team went 13-3 in the regular season en route to the NFC title game, make sure to note how the defense routinely stepped up in big spots. And if you’re making a list as to how the Eagles can advance to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, put the defense at the very top.
“Defense wins championships,” Jenkins said. “We say it all the time in here. It's cliché, but it's the truth."