A Sunday night matchup between two of the last three NFC champs
It’s hard to believe that the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles met in a divisional playoff game as recently as January of 2018. Since then, franchises that combined for two of the past three NFC conference titles have gone in markedly different directions.
The Eagles went through a difficult 2019 but bounced back late to make the playoffs, making the divisional round before losing as the No. 6 seed to New Orleans. They struggled early in their season opener before putting together an impressive second half to knock out the division rival Redskins 32-27.
The Falcons, meanwhile, have gone 7-10 since that playoff meeting with the Eagles and were blown out on the road against the Vikings in their season opener, falling behind 28-0 by the third quarter before losing 28-12. Their defense looked dreadful, allowing running back Dalvin Cook to rush for 111 yards and two touchdowns. Matt Ryan led an inconsistent offense that didn’t kick into gear until the game was well out of hand.
That makes this weekend’s game already a must-win for Atlanta. An 0-2 start could be disastrous in a conference packed with quality teams; the Falcons could also conceivably fall two games behind the Saints, making them an underdog in the division race. Homefield advantage certainly helps, but this former Super Bowl contender has its work cut out for it to turn things around.
Philadelphia at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 15 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -2
Three Things To Watch
1. Can the Falcons figure out how to score in the red zone?
An ESPN.com article this week paid special attention to how the Falcons have struggled in the Red Zone in their last three games against the Eagles. They were 2-for-9 in their three losses, with Ryan going 4-for-17 for 19 yards, a TD, an INT, and two sacks. Clearly, those aren’t the stats a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback should be putting up in scoring territory.
But those lousy numbers go far beyond the Eagles. The last time the Falcons converted all their Red Zone opportunities in a game was a woeful 1-for-1 effort in a Dec. 2 loss to the Ravens last year. They’re 10-for-17 in their last five games, a 58.8% average that’s below expectations for what used to be one of the league’s most explosive offenses.
Some of the blame has to be placed at Ryan’s feet, although a makeshift offensive line hasn’t helped (rookie guard Chris Lindstrom was placed on IR this week with a broken foot.) Ryan had a costly interception in the first quarter that led to a touchdown last week and wound up getting sacked four times.
Now, the Eagles defense could provide Ryan an opening to get his feet back on the ground. They allowed 380 yards to Case Keenum last week in a home game and sacked him just once without any picks. Can Ryan step up?
2. Which running game will get going?
Both offenses have a running back by committee system of sorts to start the 2019 season. And both systems showed flaws in the season opener. Yes, the Eagles totaled 123 yards rushing in the end with Darren Sproles, Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders the key contributors. Sproles looked great after choosing to put off retirement after two years filled with injuries.
However, Sanders showed he was no Saquon Barkley. Posting just 25 yards rushing on 11 carries (a 2.3-yard average) was a letdown after a preseason filled with a few encouraging runs. Howard was also used more sporadically than expected (six carries, 44 yards) for a guy who has limited pass-catching upside. Expect Howard to get more involved in the offense Sunday night.
The Falcons, meanwhile, had Ryan as their second-leading rusher in Week 1. Devonta Freeman totaled just 19 yards on eight carries, while Ito Smith added 31. That’s not enough to open up the offense and establish manageable 2nd and 3rd-down situations for an offense that should be racing down the field with its talented receiving 1-2 punch of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
The worry for the Falcons is that their defense really struggled to stop the run last week, while the Eagles did not (limiting the Redskins to 28 yards on 13 carries; it was so bad that an inactive Adrian Peterson appears to have regained a major role for Washington’s offense for Week 2). Another bad performance for the Falcons on the ground would make it nearly impossible to pull out a victory.
3. Who will step up for the Eagles offense this week?
No question about it, DeSean Jackson saved the Eagles after they started off slow against the Redskins. His 154 yards and two touchdowns showcased a deep threat for Carson Wentz after the quarterback's two injury-prone seasons. It also reminded us to always, always trust Jackson when facing a former team; the 32-year-old appears to have found new life now that he’s back at a place where some say he always belonged.
However, Jackson’s age makes it unlikely he’ll have two great games in a row. The rest of the Eagles offense appeared sluggish, and more options need to emerge. Will Alshon Jeffery be the one to stand out in Week 2? He did have a crucial touchdown catch in the fourth quarter and totaled 49 yards receiving. Or what about Zach Ertz? He had only 54 yards, a letdown after a record-setting 2018. But as the game wore on, he appeared to adjust to the Redskins defense, and Wentz reestablished the connection these two showcased throughout 2018.
The bottom line is that the Eagles offense is filled with plenty of Pro Bowl pieces to choose from — and that’s why they’re so dangerous. Any one of them can put the Eagles over the top.
The Eagles are soaring while the Falcons feel like their wings got clipped sometime last season. There’s hope for Atlanta in that the Eagles struggle to start off quickly; they’ve scored 41 points in the first quarter in their last 17 games, dead last in the NFL.
But if the Falcons defense lets them down early? This one could get ugly.
Prediction: Eagles 34, Falcons 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.