It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. The Atlanta Falcons, in their second year under head coach Dan Quinn have learned that the hard way. Last year, a surprise 6-3 start became a frustrating 8-8 ending. This team squandered a playoff spot through shoddy defense and an offense that cracked 24 points just once over the last seven games.
Now, this group has another chance after starting out 6-3 once again. Atlanta has a healthy lead in the NFC South (1.5 games) over New Orleans and a remaining schedule conducive to a playoff run. The Falcons’ last three games of the season alone – at Cleveland, at Miami, and home vs. Jacksonville – is as appealing as it gets right now considering the state of these three teams.
Put those down as wins and Atlanta is looking at 9-7 at minimum, which would position them for a wild card spot, if not the division title. Could this be the season underrated quarterback Matt Ryan, who is having an MVP-type season, gets the Falcons over the hump and back into the playoffs?
Series History: Eagles lead 17-14-1
Atlanta at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 13 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Eagles -.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Eagles hold it together at home?
It’s been a rough road for the Eagles as of late, slumping to 4-4 after a 3-0 start that included a rout of Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. A young team led by a rookie quarterback, Philadelphia has struggled to close out games, losing nail-biters to the Lions, Redskins, Cowboys, and Giants by a total of just 19 points.
Those are the growing pains you’d expect at this stage. But one place where the Eagles haven’t lost yet is within the confines of Lincoln Financial Field. Their defense has been ferocious at home, allowing just 7.7 points per game and not a single 100-yard rusher. Carson Wentz, despite two interceptions in the last game against the Vikings, also seems more comfortable in front of the home crowd.
It’s a crucial moment for the Eagles, whose schedule doesn’t get any easier after this week as a road game with the Seahawks awaits. Can the boost of coming home erase the stink of this 1-4 stretch?
2. Can the Eagles ground the league’s No. 1 QB-WR combo?
Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has done a yeoman’s job this season but perhaps his toughest assignment yet lies dead ahead. Matt Ryan, in the midst of rockier seasons by some of his peers (Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck) has been positioning himself as an elite signal-caller and a potential MVP candidate. On pace for nearly 5,300 passing yards, he’s thrown 23 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions and leads the NFL with a 119.0 passer rating.
Schwartz’s Bills-imported secondary also will have to deal with the likes of Julio Jones, the league’s leading receiver who’s already on the precipice of a 1,000-yard season. Jones has destroyed some of the league’s more effective corners and it’s hard to see Leodis McKelvin (listed as questionable with a hamstring injury) and Rodney McLeod suddenly reeling him in. There’s a reason Atlanta leads the league at 33.9 points per game. There also no reason to think either one of their leaders will get slowed down by this Eagles defense.
3. Can Devonta Freeman get going?
An offensive spark for the Falcons last season, Freeman hasn’t been as productive to this point in 2016, especially from a touchdown standpoint. He has just one 100-yard rushing game (Week 4 vs. New Orleans), and is averaging less than 15 carries. He also has five touchdowns (3 rushing, 2 receiving) in nine games after scoring 14 (11 rushing alone) last season.
As successful as Atlanta’s passing attack has been, the Falcons need to find balance on offense if they want to take the next step from divisional to Super Bowl contenders. At some point, other teams will try and take away the pass and force the Falcons to beat them with the run. With Tevin Coleman still out due to a hamstring injury, Freeman will carry the load once again against a middle-of-the-pack Eagles rushing defense. Is this the week Freeman finally finds some running room?
The Eagles are very strong at home but the Falcons are summoning a different type of strength. With the Panthers sitting at 3-5 and the Saints playing Denver this week there’s a chance here to create real separation within the NFC South, leaving a division title firmly within reach. Don’t expect the Falcons to whiff on that opportunity. After all, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...
Prediction: Falcons 31, Eagles 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.