NFC's last two Super Bowl representatives square off in the season opener
The Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles are the last two NFC Super Bowl representatives. The difference between them is the Falcons lost a historic comeback to the New England Patriots while the Eagles found a way to sneak past them.
Now, the defending champions of Super Bowl LII kick off the year on Thursday night with a Patriots-like target on their back. There are few who want to hit the bullseye more than the Falcons, the team who came the closest to stopping the Eagles’ scintillating playoff run with a heartbreaking 15-10 loss in Philadelphia in the Divisional Round. If Julio Jones catches a fourth-down pass with 1:05 remaining Nick Foles may never have become the NFL's No. 1-selling jersey, surpassing even reigning MVP Tom Brady.
But the Eagles not only survived that game but thrived with their backup quarterback. That’s important because it’s Foles who will be called on to defeat the Falcons once again. Head coach Doug Pederson, initially dodging the question with increasingly testy language this week, announced starter Carson Wentz won’t have medical clearance yet from his torn ACL.
But that’s not the only Eagle banged up entering an NFL season opener where injuries are already playing a key role. Can Matt Ryan, fresh off a $30 million-per-year contract extension take advantage and earn the Falcons a crucial early tiebreaker in what’s expected to be a crowded NFC playoff race?
Series History: 34 meetings (Eagles lead 19-14-1)
Last Meeting: Eagles 15, Falcons 10 (2018 NFC Divisional Round)
Atlanta at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 6 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Foles reclaim the playoff magic he had back In January?
After a bizarre few days in which Doug Pederson, normally a mild-mannered guy with the media, lashed out over reporting Nick Foles was his starting quarterback the decision was made public Monday afternoon. Carson Wentz, despite looking great in preseason workouts, has not yet been cleared for contact as team doctors remain overly cautious about medical clearance.
That means Foles will be back in command. But which streaky QB will we see? He was brilliant during the playoffs last year, throwing for 971 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception in three games. That included a workmanlike 246 yards against the Falcons, a 75 percent completion rate and QB rating of 100.1 despite failing to throw for a touchdown.
Foles managed the game well, finding his footing against the Falcons in that second half. But up until that point, there was little reason to believe he’d rise to the occasion. Foles had some shaky games as a starter, throwing for just 481 yards in the final three-plus regular season games replacing Wentz. Aside from a four-TD, no-INT performance against the lowly Giants he was... forgettable.
That mediocrity cropped up during an ugly preseason. Foles failed to throw for a touchdown in two games’ worth of action, going 16 for 26 with two interceptions and an unsightly QB rating of 48.7. His picks against last year’s 0-16 Cleveland Browns resulted in a 5-0 loss in what may be the ugliest NFL preseason game nationally televised. The throws didn’t have zip, timing with the receivers was off and Foles looked nothing like a guy who pinned Tom Brady down on the mat just seven months earlier.
This version of Foles also has fewer offensive options to choose from. Top receiver Alshon Jeffery is injured and will not play. Running back LeGarrette Blount is no longer with the team. Last year’s promising rookie Mack Hollins is banged up. He’ll need to be more of a difference-maker.
But running back Jay Ajayi should keep the pressure off Foles and the defense on their toes, respecting the run. The team will likely rely on a lot of two-tight end sets with Pro Bowler Zach Ertz and rookie Dallas Goedert, one of the few preseason standouts for the Eagles on offense. There will be opportunities for Foles to throw the ball with time.
Can he deliver?
2. Rebuilding the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones connection
It was that near miss between Ryan and Jones that killed off the Falcons’ season. But that typified what became an off year for a duo that experienced a Super Bowl hangover. Ryan threw for just 20 touchdowns last year, his lowest total since his rookie season of 2008, and looked a step below the first team All-Pro that nearly won it all a year earlier. As for Jones, his numbers held up better but he found the end zone just three times. His longest catch was just 53 yards, a career low while his yards per catch ticked down slightly to 16.4.
But make no mistake, this duo remains the core of the Falcons. The team committed five years and $150 million to the 33-year-old Ryan this offseason, making him the NFL’s first $30 million man. They then tweaked Jones’ deal before training camp when his $14.25 million yearly salary had dropped him to ninth best at the wide receiver position. It’s clear this team will live or die with these two going forward.
They should thrive. Atlanta’s issues in the red zone last year were well known, scoring a TD just 49.2 percent of the time (ranking just 23rd in the NFL). Those numbers, to some degree are cyclical and should bounce back this year with more options. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, in particular, is one of the game’s better No. 2 receivers and is joined by rookie Calvin Ridley from Alabama. This group will relearn how to score.
“The thing is, we just have to take what people give us,” Jones said earlier this week. “We’re not going to force anything down there. We [have] a lot of new wrinkles in the red zone.”
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian says those tricks will be revealed as soon as this Thursday. I expect them to figure things out.
3. Defense, defense, defense
Jim Schwartz’s defensive unit will be asked to step up early this season with so many Eagles hurt. They looked outstanding late in the preseason, giving up a total of 14 points over the final two games against the Browns and Jets.
Big things are expected from Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham as they anchor what was the fourth-best defense in the league last season. The key will be how Schwartz chooses to play his linebackers with Nigel Bradham serving a one-game suspension. Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry, bit players on last year’s Super Bowl run, will assume starting roles as the defense gets a little green. At least Jordan Hicks is returning from last year’s injury and will make an immediate impact.
The Falcons, meanwhile feel their defense is consistently underrated. Ninth in the league last year, they’re built on speed and swarm to the football under the leadership of linebacker Deion Jones. Named to his first Pro Bowl last year, Jones is ready to step up a level in 2018 and will pose a problem for an Eagles offensive line that was inconsistent at times in the preseason.
On paper, the Eagles have regressed, particularly on offense with so many people hurt. The Falcons come in looking to prove themselves. Add in an ugly preseason in Philadelphia and you would think this game tilts the Falcons’ way.
And yet... head coach Pederson remains a wild card. His emotional outburst a few days ago was out of character but he very much has command of his locker room. His understanding on how to bring this team together, mixing in a solid work ethic with fun and team camaraderie lifted them far beyond their ability in 2017. He’s stressed repeatedly this summer they’ve earned nothing, starting at the bottom of the barrel and recognizing the target that lies on their back.
Add in a built-in special teams advantage known as 61-yard field goal kicker Jake Elliott, the home-field edge playing at Lincoln Financial Field and it feels like the Eagles will somehow find a way.
Prediction: Eagles 17, Falcons 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.