Jay Ajayi (USA Today Sports)
Jay Ajayi (USA Today Sports)

There’s maybe no one who understands the afterglow and page-turning that happens after a Super Bowl more than Bill Belichick, the man the Philadelphia Eagles outgunned just seven months ago to win their first Super Bowl title.

In a piece titled “O.K., Champ, Now Comes the Hard Part,” written for the New York Times, Belichick spells out the circus that follows Lombardi, and almost all of it — all except that White House part — applies to the Eagles.

Perhaps the line that resonates most following the Eagles’ 18-12 win against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night: “Your own shortcomings are real.”

Yes, it was a win. It was a hard-fought one. And it felt shockingly familiar to the divisional-round win over the Falcons that the Eagles endured on this field three weeks before the Super Bowl glory.

No, it wasn’t pretty, and there’s a good chance this will be among the uglier games — win or lose — that the Eagles play all season. But it also was a reminder that even the victories aren’t going to come as easily this time around. Even with some real brow-wipers last season, the Eagles’ average margin of victory was 10.4 points a year ago.

On the night they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, the Eagles limped through the early phases of the game, one that was delayed nearly an hour because of lightning threats in the area of Lincoln Financial Field before kickoff. And it’s not as if the Falcons came out sharp and shocked the defending champs; they opened with a false start on their first offensive play from scrimmage, ran four first-quarter plays in two different possessions inside the Philly 5-yard line (gaining 1 yard on those) and coming away with three points.

There were nearly double the number of accepted penalties (16, nine by Atlanta) at halftime as there were points (nine, 6-3 Falcons). The penalties outpaced the total combined points scored until Jay Ajayi tallied his second touchdown of the night, followed by a two-point conversion, with 2:19 left in the game to provide the winning margin.

Just like in the 15-10 playoff win over Atlanta in January, it came down to a failed fourth-and-goal play by the Falcons for the Eagles to walk off with a victory. Matt Ryan, who looked completely off most of Thursday’s game, couldn’t find Julio Jones inbounds on the final play.

The Falcons were the stronger team early on, as the Eagles never found their rhythm. Nick Foles was spectacular in the Super Bowl as the game’s MVP, and his signing might be one of the more important ones in the NFL this season with Carson Wentz still on the mend with a torn ACL. But in no way, shape or form did Foles look comfortable in this game.

The Falcons’ fast-flowing, hard-hitting defense certainly had something to do with this, even with safety Keanu Neal twice leaving the game with a knee injury and finally exiting for good early in the second half. Even still, Foles (19-for-34 passing, 117 yards, interception) couldn’t find much early outside of short routes and dumpoffs, most of them to Nelson Agholor, who tied his career-high with eight catches for a mere 33 yards. The Eagles’ long gain through the air was 18.

It behooved the Falcons to let Agholor nickel and dime them while keeping Zach Ertz hemmed in with safety help. With Alshon Jeffery out for the Eagles, it was clear where Atlanta’s defensive help was going to be drawn all game. It wasn’t until late in the contest that the plan started falling apart as Atlanta’s defense completely wore down.

The Eagles’ first sign of life offensively came when Agholor hit Foles on a 15-yard trick pass — are we calling this one Philly Special 2.0? (And actually, it looked far more like the play the Patriots ran in the Super Bowl that Tom Brady flat out dropped than it did the Trey Burton-to-Foles play.)

Whatever we decide on, it was a good sign that head coach Doug Pederson is not going to slow down this season with his fun play calling just because he has a ring. Then again: With Wentz out, is calling pass routes for Foles, sure-handed as he’s now shown us, the best idea? This is not the final game of the season, after all.

But at that point, Pederson could tell his team needed a spark. They — and the wet Eagles fans — had been on life support until then. The drive ended in a Jay Ajayi touchdown, and the Eagles led for the first time all game, 10-6. They gained 63 yards on the TD drive after totaling only 68 in the first half.

The Falcons were reeling on defense that whole drive after taking the first real haymaker of the night. It seemed to leak over to their offense, too, with the Falcons looking far more like the Eagles did in the first half: sloppy, out of sync and lethargic. But the Eagles gave them a massive gift at the end of the third quarter as special-teamer Tre Sullivan accidentally kicked a punt, and the Falcons recovered at the Philadelphia 33-yard line.

The Eagles kept giving Ryan second and third chances, and he kept trying to give them back. After Nate Gerry dropped a would-be pick-6, Derek Barnett’s offsides negated a sack that would have driven the Falcons out of field-goal range. But the Falcons once more inflicted their own red-zone wounds as Ryan threw a duck of an interception near the goal line. It had zero chance of being caught by Julio Jones, the intended target.

And yet it was far from over.

Foles hit rookie Dallas Goedert for one of his best passes of the night, but the rookie bobbled the ball right into the hands of the Falcons’ Deion Jones for a huge pick. Two plays later, the Falcons were up 12-10 after a Tevin Coleman touchdown — this time it was the Eagles’ defense that looked rattled for a minute. And yeah, the missed extra point that followed? Only fitting for this instant classic.

The Eagles matched that brilliance by getting flagged for a bad offensive pass interference penalty and needing to burn a timeout when the play clock ran down. It was that kind of night. Both teams were pretty washed from the start, with tiny momentum swings breaking up the ugly momentarily. Twenty-six accepted penalties and three second-half turnovers only begin to tell the story in this one.

The Falcons were called for 15 of those penalties, the most they’ve had accepted in 19 years, and the Eagles couldn’t fully take advantage. Ryan was awful, and he nearly fumbled the ball back to Philly with six minutes left inside his own 20-yard line.

This was not the start anyone imagined, even with the injury bug biting hard. Blame it on Wentz being out if you want, and that will continue to be a story longer than we assumed. NFL Network reported before that game that it could be games — plural — before he returns. After all, this Eagles medical staff has earned the reputation of being very conservative over the past several years, and you know, they do have the Super Bowl as the house money with which to play.

And this one game is no way to measure the direction for the season. The Eagles have 10 days before they draw a Jameis Winston-less Buccaneers team, followed by the Colts, who have a defense that should help fatten up the old stats a bit.

It would be shocking if the passing game didn’t get cooking a tiny bit, even if it’s Foles filling in heading into a stiffer challenge against the Titans on the road in Week 4. A 4-0 start is hardly unimaginable.

But why does this game feel like it could be a harbinger of a tough road ahead? Because the Eagles are not the cute underdogs anymore with dog masks; they’re the team everyone is going to be gunning for this season, and a more disciplined team would have beaten them Thursday.

Maybe in a month we’re laughing at their first-world problems. Or maybe this becomes the recurring theme. Back to Belichick and his post-Super Bowl advice for a minute: “You'll do your job because you know in about five minutes you're right back in the pack with the other 31 of us.”

Right now, the Eagles might not be able to play the underdog role, but their ugly kickoff is a reminder that they’re far from better than most teams at this minute.