(6) Atlanta Falcons @ (1) Philadelphia Eagles – Saturday 4:35 PM ET, NBC
Coming off of their upset victory over the Los Angeles Rams (11-6) last weekend, the Falcons will make the trip to Lincoln Financial Field to face the NFC’s top seed. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, an Exton, Pennsylvania native, is 3-3 lifetime against the Eagles. Their most recent meeting came last season in Philadelphia. The Eagles managed to be the only team to hold the high-flying Falcons offense of 2016 to less than 20 points. The Eagles won the game 24-15. Can the Eagles reign in Ryan and the Falcons and defend their home field? Let’s take a look at each team:
Atlanta Falcons (11-6)
Despite all of their struggles this season, the Falcons are within shouting distance of returning to the NFC Championship Game. The battle-tested Falcons have braved one of the league’s toughest schedules while playing in the league’s toughest division. The adversity that the Falcons have faced this season came in handy last week in their convincing 26-13 win over the Rams.
The Falcons offense managed to come out on top in Saturday night’s slugfest. Matt Ryan was efficient and mistake-free, completing 70% of his passes for 218 yards and one touchdown pass. Ryan posted a passer rating of 101.8, marking the fifth straight postseason start that Ryan has posted a passer rating of 100 or better. Among quarterbacks in the Wild Card Round, Ryan posted the highest passer rating while under pressure at 108.9, with the next closest mark being set at 79.2.
Ryan benefited from his two feature runningbacks combining for 106 rushing yards, as well. Tevin Coleman (40 yards) and Devonta Freeman (66 yards 1 TD) helped take the pressure off of the passing game and allowed the Falcons the chance to win in the time of possession department (37:35 – 22:25).
Mohamed Sanu (4 catches 75 yards) provided a big play with a 52-yard run and catch off of a screen to set up a late touchdown. That touchdown would be caught two plays later by Julio Jones (9 catches 94 yards 1 TD) who finally started to see some redzone targets. Jones averages 104.7 yards per game in the postseason, the best all-time.
This unit will face a tough test in Philadelphia, as the Eagles boast one of the league’s top defenses. But if this experienced group can execute and remain mistake-free like they did against Los Angeles, they can get the job done.
If there was any remaining doubt as to the quality of Atlanta’s defense, it should be erased by now. This defense is really good.
The Falcons ended up allowing the Rams’ season average in total yards on Saturday (361). That’s not the good part: they also held the league’s number one scoring offense to only 13 points. The Falcons also created two special teams takeaways that helped them salt away the clock, add more points on the board, and capture the game’s momentum. In addition to tallying up three sacks, the Falcons only allowed the Rams to convert on 35% of their third down attempts (5/14) and 33% of their fourth down attempts (1/3). In four redzone trips, the Falcons only allowed the Rams to get into the endzone once. What’s more, Atlanta was able to do this while having their corners play man-to-man coverage the majority of the night against the Rams receivers.
The Falcons defense is much improved from last year, and they will certainly be anxious to get after an Eagles offense that has struggled its last two games.
Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
After four long years, the Philadelphia Eagles have returned to postseason play. We’ve been itching to catch a glimpse of what this team would look like in the playoffs, albeit without Carson Wentz at the helm. Nick Foles will start at quarterback for the Eagles on Saturday. Coincidentally enough, Foles was the starter in the Eagles’ 24-26 loss to New Orleans in the Wild Card Round of the 2013 season. Foles played well going 23/33 with 195 yards and throwing two touchdown passes against no interceptions as he posted a passer rating of 105.0. Could another sterling performance from Foles be in the works?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about how explosive this Eagles offense has been this season. Philadelphia finished in the top ten in total offense (7th), rushing yards per game (3rd), and in points per game (3rd). Excellent ranks, to be sure. However, it is worth noting that their numbers have fallen off in recent weeks.
The Eagles finished ranked 13th in the league in net passing yards per game, no doubt due to the absence of Wentz. Nick Foles has posted a 2-1 record in Wentz’s stead, but the numbers haven’t been great. Since taking over as a starter, Foles has posted a 77.7 passer rating, completing only 54% of his passes. His last two starts he only has one touchdown pass against two interceptions. The little time that he was in the game against Dallas, Foles did not look on point. Foles is a former Pro Bowler and has won games in this league, but the way his play has been trending lately has all eyes on him in this matchup.
The best thing the Eagles have going for themselves right now is their backfield. Philadelphia has managed to squeeze 1,759 combined scrimmage yards and 11 total touchdowns out of the committee backfield of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement. Each back brings a unique skill set to the position that makes their offense dangerous. The Eagles would be best served establishing the run between the tackles. The Falcons defense has too much to try and get to the boundary on running plays regularly. Running inside is something the Eagles have been able to do well all season long.
Tight end Zach Ertz (74 catches 824 yards 8 touchdowns) is probably Foles’ most reliable target. Ertz has had one of his best seasons yet en route to his first Pro Bowl selection.
The Eagles boast one of the best defenses in the NFL. Philadelphia ranks in the top 5 defensively in total defense (4th), scoring defense (4th), and in rush defense (1st). That top rush defense will come in handy against Atlanta, a team whose offense is predicated on establishing the running game.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons, will be looking to have a big game. Cox will try to replicate the success that Aaron Donald had last weekend in being quite disruptive for the Falcons. Although Donald only managed to collect a half of a sack, he was seemingly in the backfield all night long. Cox may have more chances than Donald did given that he has a better supporting cast on that Eagles defensive line.
One area that the Eagles somewhat lack is defending the pass. The Eagles allowed an average of 227.3 net passing yards per game, which was 17th in the NFL. This has been masked, largely, by Philadelphia’s ability to create turnovers. The Eagles must create turnovers to keep the Falcons from gashing them through the air. If the Eagles can hold Atlanta to under 80 total rushing yards and force Matt Ryan to make mistakes, they will put Nick Foles in a position to lead the Eagles to victory.
I talked about experience a lot last week. I have a hard time believing that experience combined with both teams’ recent histories won’t play a factor in this one. Atlanta’s offense has been trending up in the last couple of weeks. Matt Ryan has been efficient and hasn’t turned the ball over against two tough defenses the last two games. Atlanta’s defense plays fast and has only allowed an average of 16.3 points per game since the start of December.
Meanwhile, Foles’ play has been trending down for a few weeks. I think with the extra time he’s had with the receivers over the bye his performance will improve. The Philly defense is stout, especially in the running game. At the same time I think Atlanta’s backs are good enough to combine for more than 80 yards on Saturday. In doing so they will be able to slow down the pass rush (if only slightly), extend drives, and open up passing lanes for Matt Ryan. As dominant as they have looked all season, it’s worth noting that they gave up 29 points a few weeks ago to the Giants.
I will also be interested in seeing how the Atlanta pass rush fares with Eagles starting left tackle Jason Peters on injured reserve. Every point will count in a game like this. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant has been outstanding all season. In week 17 he made all 5 of his field goal attempts and last week in Los Angeles he went 4/4. He will be a factor on Saturday.
The Falcons return to the NFC Championship Game.
Atlanta 23 – Philadelphia 17