After a fairly surprising upset of the Rams, Atlanta will come to Philly as 3-point favorites. This is the first time in league history a 6-seed is favored over a 1-seed.
Here are the reasons why both teams can win, followed by my early prediction for the game:
Why the Eagles can win
1. The Defense
Carson Wentz may have been on the fast track to an MVP award but the truth is even before his injury the identity of this team was their defense. From the very first week of the season the Eagles had the best rush defense in football and that’s still true today. No team outside of Kansas City in week 3 has been able to establish a semblance of a running game and as a virtue opposing quarterbacks have been subjected to our deep stable of pass rushers early and often. The Falcons offensive line has been suspect at times this season, and I don’t expect them to be able to run the ball. This puts the onus on protecting Matt Ryan and giving him a clean pocket – a rarity for opposing quarterbacks this season. Expect the Eagles to dominate the line of the scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball.
2. Well rested, Home-field advantage, underdogs
The Eagles spent these past two weeks tuning up and resting for the playoffs. The Falcons, meanwhile, were all hands on deck in Week 17 and played a physical four quarters this past weekend. The extra time for rest and preparation should provide this team with a little extra juice, and when you combine that with home-field advantage the circumstances are there for them to feed off the crowd and play fast and loose. It’s no secret that this defense makes the leap from really good to full-blown elite in Philly, and the running game should capitalize on that energy as well. Not to mention the obvious chip on the shoulder they’ll be playing with as 3-point home underdogs. They have something to prove on Saturday, and the disrespect on this team without Wentz has been both real and in my opinion unwarranted. I fully expect them to come out with an ‘us against the world’ mentality – which is unprecedented for a top-seeded, 13-win team.
3. Run the football
I know it’s obvious, but it bears repeating: the Eagles need to run the football effectively. We’ve written about this extensively since Wentz went down and it’s remained key to winning without him. Atlanta dominated time of possession in LA (37-22) and they’ll no doubt look to do the same here. Nobody should be pretending that 40 passes from Foles is a winning formula; the Falcons pass rushers and defensive backs are too opportunistic to put him in that position. The offensive line – led by two All-Pros and a now healthy left guard in Wisniewski – has been a strength all season. Against a middle of the road Atlanta defense they should be able to move the ball as long as they ride that line and feed Ajayi 20+ times like they’ve said. Ideally the Birds want to keep Matt Ryan on the sideline as long as possible, and running the ball is their best chance at doing that.
Why the Falcons can win
1. Matt Ryan
If the key for the Birds is to keep Matt Ryan on the sideline then naturally the Falcons want the ball in Ryan’s hands as much as possible. He’s obviously the better quarterback in this game and has more than enough playoff experience. When you have a signal caller like him your team has a chance to win any game, and more often than not when picking these games the smart money is on the better quarterback. For all the hype around home-field advantage Matt Ryan won’t be fazed, and if the Falcons leave the Linc with a win it’ll be on the back of this Philly native.
2. Commitment to the run game
For as much flak as he’s gotten this season, Steve Sarkisian executed a good game plan on Saturday. Anytime you play one of the top front-sevens in the league it’s vital that you maintain balanced play calling and he did just that. Despite the Falcons only netting 3.3 yards per rush, he stuck to the ground game with a total of 32 rushes. Even though it wasn’t efficient in moving the ball, it took care of two things; it neutralized LA’s vaunted pass rush, and kept the NFC’s top offense off the field. Although the Eagles don’t have the same high-powered offense as the Rams, they boast a similarly dangerous front-seven (1st against the run). In order to keep Jim Schwartz deep rotation of pass rushers from pinning their ears back and teeing off an immobile Matt Ryan, Steve Sarkisian will need to stick to the run game, regardless of how effective it is.
3. Opportunistic Defense
There seems to be a misnomer out there that the Falcons defense is bad. The truth is it was much better than the one that made the Super Bowl last season. They rank 9th in the league in yards, and yield just 19 points per game to opposing offenses. If they can manage to slow down the run game and force Nick Foles to throw the ball it’ll give their pass rushers and playmakers on the backend the chance to make something happen. They have depth, they play fast, and they have plenty of guys with experience. If the Eagles want to have any success moving the ball with Nick Foles they’ll need to come out with a better game plan and execution than the Rams did. This is an opportunistic Falcon defense that may not be elite but still has the ability to change the game at any moment.
Not to take anything away from Atlanta, but it should be acknowledged that the Rams played a big role in their loss. The first half saw a fumbled return and muffed punt lead to 10 of the Falcons first 13 points. Then there’s the inexcusable fact that Sean McVay only gave Todd Gurley 14 carries even though he was averaging 7.2 yards per tote. I look at these two factors as big reasons why the Falcons jumped out to a lead and why the Rams failed to close the gap – both of which have more to do with LA than with the Falcons. As I mentioned earlier, if they struggle to run against LA they can’t expect to come in here and run. Likewise, I don’t see Pederson abandoning a likely effective run game like McVay did. For these reasons I think Jay Ajayi has his best game since coming to Philly while Matt Ryan is left scrambling from what should be an energetic defense flying around with a chip on its shoulder.
Eagles 20 Falcons 13