A new year: The Falcons dig deep and hang on

You could feel it coming, kind of. A chastened team working for a new coach got to open at home on Monday night, meaning the setting alone was tinder for an impassioned performance. What was surprising, at least a bit, is that the Falcons didn’t win on spirit alone. The flesh was more than willing and, on this night, actually able.

The team that went so bad for two years that it dumped the best coach it had ever had beat Philadelphia 26-24, and this was no upset. (OK, so technically it was. The Eagles entered as a road favorite.) But the Falcons were the better team for most of the game, and when it ended the game was theirs.

Julio Jones looked like the NFL’s best player. (Not the best receiver. The best at any position.) Matt Ryan was sharp, except for those jaw-dropping moments when he wasn’t. (More about that in a bit.) The offensive line has become a revolving door, but on this night it was no swinging gate. Ryan had ample time to let Jones shake free, and Jones can really shake.

A revealing moment: Inside the first half’s final minute, Jones blew past cornerback Byron Maxwell along the right sideline and ran under Ryan’s delivery. The touchdown made it 20-3. Maxwell glared at safety Chris Marogos as if to say, “Where was my deep help?” But no safety could have run to the sideline to stop a play of such precision. The Eagles’ secondary simply wasn’t good enough to handle Jones/Ryan/Falcons.

The 17-point halftime lead coulda/shoulda been more. Ryan was intercepted in the end zone by linebacker Kiko Alonso, whose mighty leap snared an underthrown pass to Roddy White. That, for reasons unclear, is what Ryan has become: He can be as accurate as Joe Montana — he was 16 for 22 for 203 yards in this first half — but then, for no real reason, he throws a horrid INT.

An even more egregious Ryan interception made a game of what was poised to become a rout. The Falcons took the second-half kickoff. A touchdown would have made it 27-3 and left a flustered Chip Kelly looking for more Oregon players to sign. (There are six ex-Ducks on the Philly roster.) Except that Ryan, again for no reason, threw the ball to the wrong team.

By quarter’s end, Philadelphia had drawn with 20-17. This fevered mind flashed back to Oct. 27, 2014, in London’s Wembley Stadium — the day Ryan threw the worst interception of his life in a game the Falcons had led 21-0 and would lose 22-21. Granted, much else had to go wrong that day, but much else did. Would something of similar awfulness happen in a different year in different country under a different coach?

The Falcons’ defense, the NFL’s worst last season, had held Kelly’s offense to six first downs and 125 yards in the first half. The hurryin’ Eagles were mostly in a hurry to go three-and-out. The rookie pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr. batted down a Sam Bradford pass and battered Bradford himself on another incompletion. Dan Quinn’s defensive makeover was off to a flying start.

Ryan’s second interception changed the game. The Eagles scored a quick touchdown, then two more. Inside the final 10 minutes, they took a 24-23 lead. Then Ryan hit Jones running deep and the Falcons nosed back in front on Matt Bryant’s field goal. Then the Eagles’ Cody Parkey missed a 44-yarder that would have put his team ahead.

Credit the defense for some of that. Paul Worrilow’s stop of Ryan Mathews on third-and-1 halted a drive that appeared bound for the goal line, and Parkey flubbed his kick. But just enough time remained for the Eagles, provided they could stop the Falcons. Which they did.

Gut check in Game 1: Eagles with the ball on their 14 with 1:49 remaining, the Falcons two points ahead. On third-and-8, Jordan Matthews couldn’t hold Bradford’s pass. Safety Ricardo Allen’s diving interception of the deflection — Worrilow slammed into Matthews as he was bobbling — sealed the deal. The Falcons had prevailed on Quinn’s opening night.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a game they’d have lost last year. This time they overcame their quarterback’s weird wobbles. This time they won.