The opening game of the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs pits the Atlanta Falcons versus the Philadelphia Eagles in a case of the underdog versus the favorite. Or is it the favorite versus the underdog?
It’s hard to tell.
For the first time in modern NFL history, the No. 1 seed of a conference opened up as the underdog in Vegas. The Eagles, despite a 13-3 record and cruising to the NFC East title find themselves considered a bit of a long shot. After quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending ACL injury, the team ended the year with a 2-1 record and shaky victories against the lowly Giants and Raiders. Replacement Nick Foles hardly inspired confidence while the defense, expected to pick up the slack, showed some cracks in the armor instead.
Now in come the Falcons, the NFC’s No. 6 seed but No. 1 on the list of “most recent NFC Super Bowl participants.” This team was a half away (a few minutes, really) from defeating the Patriots in Super Bowl LI before hitting the self-destruct button last February. A difficult 2017 season followed, one where both sides of the ball suffered through streaks of maddening inconsistency. At times, it seemed the Falcons were destined to give their playoff spot away, victims of a Super Bowl hangover they couldn’t shake.
But suddenly, they’re hitting a groove at exactly the right time of year. Atlanta went 6-2 down the stretch, including victories against fellow playoff teams the Saints and Panthers. And then came this past Saturday's convincing 26-13 win in Los Angeles over the Rams in their wild-card game. Quarterback Matt Ryan (above, right) has put the offense together, the defense has held two straight opponents under 14 points and even kicker Matt Bryant (4-for-4 on FGs last week) is hitting on all cylinders.
For the Falcons to make the Super Bowl, they’ll need three wins on the road. But we’ve seen this movie happen before. Another top-tier quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, took the Packers from the No. 6 seed all the way to a Super Bowl championship back in 2011.
Are we watching history repeat itself? Or are bettors (and even fickle Philadelphia fans) underestimating the NFC’s No. 1 seed?
NFC Divisional Playoff: Atlanta at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 13 at 4:35 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Falcons -3
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Nick Foles play?
All eyes are on the backup quarterback, who had thrown just four passes during the first 12 games of the NFL regular season. Foles’ record since replacing Wentz is 3-1, but his production has declined in every start, raising serious concerns.
The Cowboys game saw him hit rock bottom, going 4-for-11 in the regular-season finale for just 39 yards. An interception left him with a ghastly quarterback rating of 9.3, the third time in four games he’d finished under 70. By comparison, Wentz never had a rating lower than 83 in any of the 12 games he played. The Eagles have gone from a former MVP to a quarterback they might call “Most Valuable Prevent.” Foles isn’t expected to win the game; they’re just hoping he doesn’t lose it for them either.
Can the Eagles somehow get this backup QB back on track? Once upon a time, the former starter had a magical 2013 season in which he set a franchise record with just two interceptions in 317 attempts. His record under center that year was 8-2; in fact, he was 14-4 when paired with former head coach Chip Kelly in 2013-14.
Doug Pederson, the current Eagles head coach, has spent the off week trying to rekindle that magic. Old game film combined with one-on-one teaching has him hoping the Eagles can somehow reinvent their offense around Foles’ strengths as a quarterback.
“I’ve gone back and watched a lot of his tape here, [from 2015 when he was in] St. Louis, and when he was here before, when I was here,” he told philly.com last week. “I just wanted to go back and just see the types of plays. The quick throw was there, a little play-action pass, the shotgun stuff. Those things are all in our system. We might just have to dust a few more off and get that ready to go.”
Where Foles might build confidence is if the Eagles are able to work running back Jay Ajayi into the offense more. Ajayi was the main focal point of the Dolphins' offense and was brought to the Eagles to make an impact; however, his role has been limited with LeGarrette Blount (right) and Corey Clement occupying the same backfield. Can the Eagles draw up some additional screens and other plays for Ajayi (and Clement, for that matter), little dinks and dunks to build Foles’ confidence early?
We’ll have to see what offensive coordinator Frank Reich has in store. But his game plan is mission critical for the Eagles to have any sort of chance.
2. Can the red-hot Falcons defense outplay the Eagles?
Over the course of 2017, the Eagles competed with the Vikings for the title of the NFC’s best defense. Their 306.5 yards per game ranked fourth in the NFL; their 79.2 rushing yards allowed led the league altogether. Add in 31 takeaways (fourth) and 18.4 points per game (ditto) and it’s clear their scheme is the whole package: forcing turnovers, keeping pressure on the quarterback and limiting big runs and game-changing plays.
But a closer look at the last month shows the Falcons, whose defense ranked eighth in yards allowed, may actually have the upper hand. In their last five games, they’ve allowed just 16.8 points; keep in mind three of them have been against the high-powered offenses of the Rams and Saints.
During that stretch, the Falcons also have five interceptions and three fumble recoveries. That’s roughly half of the 16 takeaways the Falcons had during the full 16-game regular season. It’s clear, then, the defense is clicking, licking its chops to put pressure on a quarterback in Foles who’s still trying to get in a rhythm.
The difference in the defenses, though could come down to their front seven. The Falcons, while ninth against the run, still have found themselves susceptible to tiring out in the fourth quarter when the battle in the trenches takes center stage.
On the other side, the Falcons’ only loss this last month came against a Saints team that ravaged their offensive line. In a 23-13 loss, Matt Ryan got sacked five times and never looked comfortable in the pocket. Brandon Graham, while not selected to the Pro Bowl, had a solid season and leads the team with 9.5 sacks. Linebacker Chris Long has four forced fumbles to his credit, and Fletcher Cox (who did earn a Pro Bowl selection) has two fumble recoveries. First-round pick Derek Barnett will be a wild card this weekend as well; he’s certainly lived up to the billing in his rookie season.
How this group can shake the Falcons may determine the Eagles’ fate. The secondary has looked shaky in recent weeks, allowing Eli Manning to throw for a season-high 434 yards. They’re going to need to force turnovers and put pressure on the quarterback in order for the NFC’s top seed to stay in contention.
3. Matt Bryant vs. Jake Elliott: Which kicker can make a bigger impact?
Bryant was impressive last week when the Falcons struggled to punch the ball into the end zone. Eighth in the regular season in points scored, he's a perfect 37-for-37 on extra points and has developed into one of the NFL’s more dependable kickers.
But Elliott is no slouch. It was this rookie whose Eagles-record 61-yard field goal clinched an early-season win against the Giants and sparked a season-long run of momentum. He enters this game 26-for-31 on field goals, missing just three attempts after the Giants victory in Week 3 and none of his misfires were in clutch scenarios.
It’s easy to see both kickers being called upon for long field goal attempts on what’s likely to be a cold, blustery day in Philadelphia. Bryant can be trusted in late-game situations but it’s Elliott whose performance will have the greater impact. Especially with a struggling offense, a long-range boot from Elliott in particular could serve to give his team (and Foles) some extra confidence.
Wild Card: Home-field Advantage
The Eagles were a league best 7-1 at Lincoln Financial Field this season and one could argue they could have gone undefeated had they played starters a full 60 minutes in a meaningful regular-season finale against the Cowboys. After a short playoff drought, the stadium will be packed as Eagles fans still understand the opportunity in front of them.
Will Foles instead of Wentz dampen the crowd enthusiasm? Slightly. But if the Eagles somehow jump out to an early lead Philadelphia becomes one of the most difficult places to play for a road team outside of maybe Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City or Seattle's CenturyLink Field. The energy of the crowd could play a factor late with a team like the Falcons that has suffered through its share of late-game collapses this season.
While Nick Foles might play shaky this weekend, keep in mind the Eagles have had an extra week to prepare. The defense is well rested and home-field advantage will keep them in it even with a bad offensive performance until late in the fourth quarter.
Still, Matt Ryan’s poise combined with the playoff expertise of the Falcons could prove to be too much. So will the reigning NFC champs move on? Or can Foles and company find a way to get the job done and put off the "what ifs" regarding Carson Wentz for at least one more week?
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)