4:35 PM EST, NBC – Line: Falcons -3, Over/Under: 41.5
What is commonly referred to as the best weekend in football kicks off today in the City of Brotherly Love, as the Top-Seeded Philadelphia Eagles host the reigning NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons from Lincoln Financial Field, in a matchup of teams that have entered the Playoffs on two very different courses. Look out folks, but the Falcons (10-6, 3rd in NFC South) may indeed be coming full circle; after experiencing the crushing collapse of Super Bowl LI, followed by a campaign full of highs and lows, Atlanta nevertheless managed to grind their way into the Postseason for the second consecutive term, capturing the NFC’s last Wild Card on the final weekend of the Regular Season. In some respects, the 2017 campaign has been even more impressive than it’s predecessor, for despite boasting much of the same personnel from the previous incarnation of the team, this group still found a way to reach this point in the face of some unexpected flaws. A year after leading the league in scoring (33.8 P/G), Dan Quinn’s charges weren’t nearly as explosive, falling back to the middle of the pack averaging 22.1 Points per Game (15th Overall), thanks in large part to their struggles in the Red Zone; in 2016, they scored a Touchdown on 61.9% of their trips to that area of the field (9th Overall), only to regress considerably in this regard, punching it on just 50.0% of those opportunities (23rd Overall). Keep in mind that Matt Ryan & Co. have had very little trouble moving the ball up and down the field, amassing a healthy 374.5 Total Yards per Game (8th Overall), while pacing the NFL on Third Down, converting on 44.7% of their attempts (1st Overall). The problem has been Turnovers, or more appropriately Turnover Differential, which did not favor these guys this year. The Offense committed Eighteen Turnovers (9th Overall), which was seven more than in the previous term, while the Defense only managed to force Sixteen (27th Overall), which was six fewer than in 2016. That means they went from enjoying a Plus-11 margin to a Minus-2 margin, ultimately ending a number of longer drives prematurely. And then there was the matter of the Playcalling, and how it effected the Passing Game, or the aforementioned Ryan (64.7%, 4,095 YDS, 7.12 NY/A, 20 TD, 12 INT) in particular; it goes without saying, but new Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian and his Quarterback have endured a trying season, for a year after establishing career-highs in a slew of categories in route to earning the MVP Award, Ryan took a dramatic step back on a number of fronts, though none more so than Touchdowns, with the Tenth-Year Veteran tossing Eighteen fewer Scores than he did in 2016. Chalk it up to a lack of timing, rhythm, and consistency, or injuries along the Offensive Line, for no matter what you decide to attribute it to, things have rarely come as easily for Ryan as they did a year ago. And with that said, give credit to Quinn and his troops for being able to adapt and win via different means. This has been no more apparent than on Defense, where the Falcons have quietly been a very solid unit; Atlanta has relegated their opponents to 19.7 Points (8th Overall) on 318.4 Total Yards (9th Overall), including 214.3 Yards versus the Pass (12th Overall) on 5.8 Net Yards per Attempt (10th Overall), along with another 104.1 Yards against the Run (9th Overall) on 4.1 Yards per Carry (19th Overall), all the while registering Thirty-Nine Sacks (14th Overall). Ironically, while the Offense has struggled mightily in the Red Zone, the Defense has been among the league’s best, relinquishing a Touchdown on just 45.8% of all opportunities (5th Overall). Just look at their performance in last weekend’s 26-13 upset victory at the Los Angeles Rams, for further proof of their improvement. Quinn watched his outfit hold the league’s highest-scoring Offense to just Thirteen Points on 361 Total Yards, limiting arguably the most-improved Quarterback in the NFL, Jared Goff, to 24-of-45 Passing and sacking him three times, while keeping Todd Gurley out of the End Zone despite permitting 101 Rushing Yards to the Pro Bowl Tailback. Indeed, this was a game in which the visiting side had to win in an ugly manner, as the Offense struggled mightily throughout the contest, despite receiving the gift that was a pair of Rams’ Special Teams Turnovers, relying on a quartet of Matt Bryant Field Goals, before Ryan (21-of-30, 218 YDS, 1 TD) finally found Julio Jones (9 REC, 94 YDS, 1 TD) for the game-clinching Touchdown with just under Six Minutes left to play in the contest, which was coincidentally the Quarterback’s first Road Playoff Victory. Keep an eye on Ryan once again today as he travels to Philadelphia, which isn’t far from where he grew up in Exon, Pennsylvania. Over the course of his career, he’s faced the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on three occasions, earning a 1-2 record in the process.
Meanwhile, it’s been four years since the Eagles (13-3, 1st in NFC East) last qualified for the Playoffs, and after a spectacular campaign that saw them match a Franchise Record with Thirteen Victories, nobody in the City of Brotherly Love expected that the man starting at Quarterback today would be the same guy that started in their last appearance in the Postseason. That’s right folks, Nick Foles will be making the start for Doug Pederson & Co. in place of MVP front-runner Carson Wentz (60.2%, 3,296 YDS, 6.70 NY/A, 33 TD, 7 INT), who tore the ACL in his Left Knee midway through an early-December meeting with the Los Angeles Rams. Wentz, of course, was the proverbial toast of the town in Philadelphia, leading them to a sterling 10-2 record before heading to Injured Reserve, showing major improvement in juts his second season in the league. With the Sophomore at the controls, the Offense was as formidable as any, averaging 31.1 Points on 390.5 Total Yards, only to see those figures drop considerably under the direction of Foles (56.4%, 537 YDS, 4.65 NY/A, 5 TD, 2 INT), averaging a mere 17.7 Points on 258.7 Total Yards over the final three outings of the Regular Season. Simply put, the Eagles enter the Playoffs with very little momentum on this side of the ball, particularly after the final two games of the term, an ugly 19-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Christmas Night, followed by a 6-0 loss at home to the Dallas Cowboys in the Finale. The 28-Year Old Journeyman experienced all kinds of problems down the stretch, completing 19-0f-38 Attempts for a miserable 163 Yards, a Touchdown and an Interception in the former, before going 4-of-11 for Thirty-Nine Yards and another Interception in the latter, an affair in which he and many other starters were rested in the second half. Needless to say, this unit went from being a juggernaut under Wentz, only to struggle to string together a decent drive under his successor, with perhaps the most damning statistic being their performance on Third Down. On the season, Philadelphia ranked Eighth in the league on Third Down (41.7%), but over the last three games of the season have been dreadful in this regard, converting on only 23.7% of those attempts. And it’s with that said, that Pederson and his Staff will have to find a way to adjust their Gameplan so that the burden of carrying the Offense is not on Foles’ shoulders, instead utilizing the Running Game, which has been largely successful for them throughout the campaign to negate the speed and athleticism of Atlanta’s Defense, while keeping things in a manageable position on Third Down. On the season, the Offense remained faithful to the Run, averaging 29.6 Rushes (6th Overall) for 132.2 Yards per Game (3rd Overall) on 4.5 Yards per Carry (4th Overall), with a loaded Backfield making the most of their respective opportunities, featuring the likes of LeGarrette Blount (173 CAR, 766 YDS, 2 TD), Corey Clement (74 CAR, 321 YDS, 4 TD), and Jay Ajayi (208 CAR, 873 YDS, 1 TD), who was acquired Midseason in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. Ajayi really found new life in Philadelphia, averaging 58.3 Yards per Game on a stellar 5.8 Yards per Carry as part of the Eagles’ Backfield Rotation, after looking lifeless in Miami, netting a dismal 3.4 Yards per Attempt as their lead Tailback. While, he has been slowed by a lingering knee issue (which purportedly led to his move to Philly in the first place), the Pro Bowler is expected to see plenty of action today, and will likely be called upon early and often. However, with all the talk about Foles, this is a game in which the Defense must step up and seize the day. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz has done a tremendous job of crafting this unit into an aggressive, big-play machine, and will be calling upon their exploits to in order to precipitate any kind of significant Playoff Run; on the season, the Eagles have allowed 18.4 Points (4th Overall) on 306.5 Total Yards (4th Overall), including 227.3 Yards versus the Pass (17th Overall) on 5.7 Net Yards per Attempt (7th Overall), and another 79.2 Yards against the Run (1st Overall) on 3.8 Yards per Carry (6th Overall), all the while permitting opponents to convert on just 32.2% of Third Downs (3rd Overall). That last figure should make for a fascinating “Game within the Game”, given Atlanta’s persistent success on Third Down, and overall balance. If Schwartz’s charges can negate the visiting side’s Running Game, then they will in all likelihood be able to take advantage of the visiting side’s issues with Turnovers, with Philadelphia proving adept at getting their hands on the football, capturing Thirty-One Takeaways (4th Overall), leading to a very healthy Plus-11 Turnover Differential.