A preview of the NFC divisional playoff matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles
When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET (NBC)
Where: Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field
Line: Falcons by 3
Injuries: The Falcons have been banged up for weeks, but they had no players listed on their final injury report. LB Dannell Ellerbe and CB Sidney Jones are the only Eagles players listed as questionable, with both dealing with hamstring injuries.
PHOTOS: Falcons vs. Eagles in NFC divisional playoff
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
1. The defenses never rest: The narrative for the 2017 Falcons has focused on their supposed Super Bowl LI hangover and an offense that fell well short of its 2016 standards. Such handwringing overshadowed the continued maturation of a defense that's quietly morphed into one of the NFL's most well-rounded units and will likely be the primary reason the team's NFC title defense succeeds or fails.
Atlanta has allowed just 16.3 points per game over its last six, clamping down on some of the league's best offenses (New Orleans, Carolina, and the L.A. Rams among them). It's a speedy, athletic group that borrows many of the concepts head coach Dan Quinn used in Seattle and will typically load the box with eight players and dare fill-in Eagles QB Nick Foles to beat it. Especially impressive in Saturday's upset of the Rams, who scored more points than any other team in the 2017 regular season, was the play of blossoming LB Deion Jones (10 tackles) and CBs Robert Alford, Brian Poole and Desmond Trufant, who missed last year's Super Bowl run with an injury.
The Eagles defense will also have to rise to the occasion given the offense's struggles without injured QB Carson Wentz. Philadelphia finished the season ranked fourth in both points and yards allowed, but the performances have been uneven lately. The Eagles surrendered just 16 points in their last two games yet were burned for 88 in the previous three. Coordinator Jim Schwartz relies on a deep and talented front to generate pressure, which will likely be vital against an Atlanta offense that can exploit Philly's vulnerable secondary given sufficient time.
2. Questionable QBs: Matt Ryan grew up just outside of Philadelphia in Exton, Pa., so he knows what kind of crowd awaits him at The Linc. And maybe he'll appreciate the fact he's had to regenerate a thick skin a year removed from his MVP campaign.
Ryan's been fine in 2017, his 64.7% completion rate and 91.4 QB rating pretty much in line with his career norms. Of course, that's the problem. His 2016 resume now seems like a career season rather than an indicator he'd made the leap from good to elite after his TD pass total dropped by nearly half (38 to 20) and his INTs nearly doubled (from seven to 12). Ryan hasn't had one three-TD game this season, has seemed generally out of sync with his teammates and new OC Steve Sarkisian and too often struggled to leverage the team's best player, WR Julio Jones. Still, his 218-yard, one-TD, turnover-free showing in Los Angeles represented winning football — Ryan and Co. generally did just enough this season in order to return to the playoffs — and sustaining that level could just mean survival in this wide-open field.
Foles wishes he had Ryan's problems. He threw four TDs in his first start after Wentz went down, but it came against the Giants in Week 15 and now appears to be fool's gold. Foles has struggled since (47% completion rate, 48.2 QB rating), and the Eagles offense has managed just 16 points in the past nine quarters. He played well enough in his only other playoff start four years ago, former coach Chip Kelly's only postseason appearance, but expectations seem higher now for a team that looked championship caliber when Wentz, a far superior athlete to Foles, was in the lineup.
3. Take it on the run baby: Current weather models suggest the East Coast will have emerged from Arctic conditions for the opener of the divisional round. Fortunately, Atlanta's tailback tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman should thrive in any environment. The duo helped wear down the Rams and could tax even the Eagles' rotating fleet of linemen. Freeman, who gives maximum effort on every play, is a joy to watch. The Eagles would surely prefer to rely on their trio of LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement, who aren't as explosive as their Atlanta counterparts but can certainly milk a clock and occasionally tear off chunks of yardage if Foles can keep the Falcons defense honest.