Eagles-Falcons Playoff Preview
Nobody is giving the Eagles a chance in these playoffs without their NFL MVP candidate, Carson Wentz. They're underdogs at home against the Atlanta Falcons, in spite of being the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The first time that has ever happened in NFL history. Their backup QB looks horrible and even their home-field advantage has been questioned. With all that in mind, let's take a look at this Divisional round matchup.
Eagles Offense Versus Falcons Defense
There is no replacing Carson Wentz. He was going to run away with the NFL MVP award this season, but now he's hurt and Nick Foles steps in as his replacement. That 27-2 season seems like a mirage now, after watching Foles look uneasy in the pocket the last few games. But all the Eagles really need to do is have Foles manage the game and not turn the ball over. Easier said than done, I know. But it really should be the gameplan.
It's useless to cite any of the Eagles offensive statistics now. They are a completely different team without Wentz. But the Atlanta defense isn't that good. They were ranked 24th in the NFL (318.4 yards per game) during the regular season, but they were actually 8th in scoring, allowing only 19.7 points per game. That being said, the way to attack Atlanta is on the ground.
The only RB to rush for over 100 yards against the Falcons this season was Jay Ajayi. Granted, that was back in week 6, when he was still with the Dolphins, but it's time for the Eagles to feature the back they traded for at midseason. Ajayi rushed 26 times for 130 yards in that game, but he won't get that many carries in this one. LeGarrett Blount and Corey Clement will each get a few carries as well, but Ajayi should get the majority. Rotating the RBs will keep them fresh, as the Eagles hope to wear down the Atlanta defensive front. The Falcons were a respectable 9th against the run (104.1 ypg). The strength of the Falcons defense is their speed, with guys like star MLB Deion Jones. The best way to negate that speed is to ram the ball right down their throats. Let's hope Eagles head coach Doug Pederson learned what not to do by watching Andy Reid abandon the run all those years (and once again in blowing yet another huge lead in the playoffs).
Once the Eagles establish the run, the can go to play-action passes, where Foles can look to Alshon Jeffrey, Nelson Agholor and TE Zach Ertz. Jeffrey has a tough matchup against Desmond Trufant, but Foles has to give Jeffrey a chance to make a play, using his size advantage. Agholor has an easier matchup against slot CB Brian Poole and TE Zach Ertz is a matchup nightmare for any defense. Another thing working in the Eagles favor is that Atlanta only had 8 interceptions (3rd fewest in the NFL).
The Eagles offensive line will be getting back LG Stefen Wisniewski, which is great news with LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai needing help. RT Lane Johnson, RG Brandon Brooks and C Jason Kelce are all Pro Bowlers, so expect the Eagles to lean on their line in this one. Atlanta LB Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks last season with 15 1/2, but he only has 5 this season. Johnson should handle him. The interior of the line will have their hands full with DTs Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett. Moving those big bodies will be the key to the running game for the Eagles.
Falcons Offense Versus Eagles Defense
This is not the same offense that carried the Falcons to the Super Bowl last year. Kyle Shannahan is gone as offensive coordinator. He was replaced by Steve Sarkisian this season and the drop-off is noticeable. The Atlanta offense was ranked 8th overall in the regular season (364.8 ypg) and 8th passing (249.4), but both figures are down from last season. Some of that is on the offensive coordinator, but some of it is also due to QB Matt Ryan's regression. Ryan's passer rating dropped from 117.1 in his NFL MVP campaign last year to 91.4 this season. His TD-INT ratio is down, along with his completion percentage and yards per attempt. He also hasn't thrown more than 2 TDs in a game all season. In short, Matty Ice was cold in 2017. The Eagles defense, on the other hand, has been outstanding, ranked 4th overall (306.5 ypg). They were ranked 17th against the pass (227.3 ypg), but most of that had to do with teams playing from behind most of the season and accumulating garbage-time yards. They were also the 3rd best team in the NFL on third down, allowing only a 32.2% conversion rate. And most importantly, the Eagles defense was ranked 4th in points allowed (18.4 ppg).
While the Eagles like to spread the ball around on offense, the Falcons have a stud WR in Julio Jones. Jones caught 88 passes for 1,444 yards. Strangely he only caught 3 TD passes all year (and added one last week in the playoff win over the Rams). The Eagles strategy will be to keep Jones, and the other Atlanta receivers, in front of them and focus on good tackling. That strategy has worked well for them all season, so there is no reason to change now. They will force the Falcons to have sustained drives and look for turnovers. The Eagles had 19 INTs this year, good for fourth most in the NFL. WR Mohamed Sanu and TE Austin Hooper are decent receiving options, but they aren't exactly scary. CBs Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson should be up to the task at hand.
The Falcons have a potent 1-2 punch in RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. They combined for 1,493 yards and 12 rushing TDs this season. That's impressive, but not as impressive as the Eagles No. 1 ranking against the run this season (79.2 ypg). They didn't allow a 100-yard rusher until Week 17, when Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 101 yards against the Eagles second-stringers. The Eagles need to stop the run and put the Falcons into 2nd and 3rd and long situations.
The strength of the Eagles defense is their front seven, led by All-Pro DT Fletcher Cox. Cox doesn't have flashy sack numbers, but he consistently commands double teams, while stuffing the run and collapsing the pocket. Falcons center Alex Mack is a great player, but he is going to have his hands full with Cox and DT Tim Jernigan. The Eagles rotate their defensive linemen, but their best pass-rusher is Brandon Graham, with 9 1/2 sacks. And for some reason, I have a feeling that veteran DE Chris Long is going to put his stamp on the game with a strip sack or fumble recovery or something. The only problem with the Eagles front is that while they had 38 sacks on the year, they only had 9 in the last 6 games. They need to turn up the pressure again to make Ryan uncomfortable in the pocket.
Do the Eagles have a chance against the Falcons?
Last year, the Eagles had the best special teams, across the board, in the entire NFL. This year, not so much. Most of that has to do with the injuries to returner Darren Sproles and special teams captain Chris Maragos. This year, they are just average. The Falcons aren't even average in their coverage units though. They ranked dead last in kickoff coverage. Falcons returner Andre Roberts had two punt return TDs last year, but none this year. Still, he is a threat. The best thing for both teams on special teams is their kickers. Eagles kicker Jake Elliott made 26 of 31 FGs, including 12 for 14 from 45+ yards and 5 for 6 from 50+. He hit a game-winning 62-yarder against the Giants in Week 3. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant made 34 of 39 FGs, including 8 for 9 from 50+.
In spite of the Eagles fans who think Pederson should be coach of the year, I'm still not convinced Doug Pederson is a good coach. Personally, I think Wentz is the difference in the Eagles turnaround this season. The proof of that is how horrible the offense has looked without Wentz the last few games. Yes, any coach isn't as good without their star QB (See: Belicheck, Bill in Cleveland), but these playoffs will show what kind of coach Pederson really is. Honestly, the best coach on the Eagles staff is defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. On the other side of the field, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn got his team to the Super Bowl last year and Atlanta is the only 2016 playoff team in the NFC to make it to the playoffs again this year. The history of Super Bowl losing teams missing the playoffs the following year is lengthy, so Quinn is doing something right. But you can't overlook that horrible Super Bowl collapse, either. And it's obvious that offensive coordinator Sarkisian is not very good at his job.
Remember This Guy?
If Carson Wentz was playing, the Eagles might be double digit favorites. As it is, everyone is just looking at his replacement and has decided that Nick Foles just isn't good enough to win a playoff game, even at home. I agree that Foles has looked horrible this year in relief of Wentz, but the Eagles have proven time and again this season that they are more than the sum of their parts, weathering injury after injury. The Falcons are a dome team and the temperature at kickoff is going to be 32 degrees and dropping rapidly with a wind chill of 15. That matters. What also matters is the best fans in the NFL. Eagles fans don't need artificial crowd noise pumped in like other fraudulent fanbases with unwarranted reputations. Just ask the teams that hosted the Eagles this season that had to use silent snap counts in their home stadium because the visiting Eagles fans were so loud.
If this game was in Atlanta or even a neutral site, I would pick Atlanta to win. But the home field advantage in Philly is real. The Linc will be cold and the fans will be hot.
Eagles 23 - Falcons 16