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Eagles vs. Falcons: A Realist Preview

In less than 36 hours, the Philadelphia Eagles will host the Atlanta Falcons at Lincoln Financial Field. This will be the first Eagles home playoff game since 2013, and they’ll be looking for their first playoff win since the 2008 season.

Some expectations are tempered due to the loss of MVP candidate Carson Wentz leading to the insertion of Nick Foles. Of course, there are those folks who are die hard bleed green and are still looking for flights to Minnesota.

One thing at a time, fellas. Please.

This weekend, it’s Atlanta. The Falcons got to round two by beating the Los Angeles Rams 26-13 at the L.A. Coliseum last Saturday night. As of right now, the current spread for tomorrow’s game is Atlanta -3. (That means that the Falcons are favored by three points in Philadelphia for those of you who aren’t degenerate gamblers.) Without Carson Wentz, that’s a fair spread. I apologize, but it’s totally fair.

Now, I’m not saying the Eagles CAN’T win, but there are a few things that need to be addressed when previewing this game.

Who Cares What the Weather is Going to Be?
A friend of the column who I won’t put on blast has been frantically checking and refreshing the weather for tomorrow like a person refreshing the San Diego Comic Con page when it’s time to buy tickets.

Let me say this one time for the final time, and forgive my use of terrible grammar to make a point:

“Weather. Don’t. Mean. Jack. Anymore.”

Write that down. Put it on a Post-It Note, and stick it on your refrigerator like it’s an “A” on your child’s paper that you’re proud of. It could be sunny and 75. It could be cold and snowy. It means nothing. If the 2002 NFC Championship Game taught me anything, it’s that. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came into Philadelphia as heavy underdogs to an Eagles team playing its last game at Veterans Stadium. It was 26 degrees at kickoff (-3 with the wind chill). The Buccaneers had never won a road playoff game in team history nor had they won a game in temps below 32 degrees.

Tampa Bay won 27-10.

Yeah, weather means nothing. These guys are professionals.

Nick Foles is Capable of Winning This Game.
I should add the following caveats:

  • Provided that he is a game manager and not a gun slinger.
  • Provided that the Eagles run the ball at least 25 times and average around 4.0 yards per carry.

That’s the formula for a Nick Foles win tomorrow. Foles doesn’t have to be Aaron Rodgers. If that’s the gameplan, then you might as well find something else to do tomorrow afternoon after the first quarter. The plan for Foles should be “K-I-S-S” — which is “keep it simple, stupid” if you’re not familiar with that acronym. Treat Foles like he’s 2004 Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers went 15-1 that year when Roethlisberger was a rookie, and the reason was simple: no more than 25 pass attempts (except once during the regular season and once during the playoffs), a rushing attack (that was 2nd in the league that year), and an all-world defense (that was #1 that year).

Nick Foles didn’t look impressive against the Cowboys two weeks ago. That’s true, but he looked darn good against the Giants three weeks ago. If Foles goes back to that, the Eagles will be fine.

Remember this. Nick Foles almost won a playoff game in 2013 against the New Orleans Saints. Foles was 23-33 for 195 yards and two touchdowns, and gave the Eagles the lead with a three-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz with five minutes to go in the fourth. The Eagles defense — which was utterly gassed — allowed the Saints to drive and use all five minutes of that clock. The Saints kicked the field goal and won 26-24. Foles gave the team the lead late in the fourth. That’s what we asked of him. The defense couldn’t hold. (Granted, they didn’t get help from the special teams that allowed a big return by then Saint Darren Sproles combined with a Cary Williams horse collar tackle.)

Are We Sure Atlanta is Good?
I know. I know. Matt Ryan. Devonta Freeman. Julio Jones. Sanu. Etc.

They have talent, but are they good?

Let’s go back to that game against the Rams last Saturday. The Rams are a young team and most were caught up in the atmosphere of hosting a playoff game for the first time. Let’s focus on two players: Rams special teamers Pharoh Cooper and Blake Countess.

In the first quarter, Countess had a punt hit him in the foot which was recovered by Atlanta at the Rams 17 yard line. That led to Atlanta’s first field goal with about 7:17 left. Towards the end of the first quarter (about 1:20 left), the Falcons were kicking off after another field goal to make it 6-0. Cooper received the kick, ran for about 20 yards, then fumbled at around the 35 yard line. Atlanta recovered. Four minutes later, Devonta Freeman runs up the middle three yards out for a touchdown making it 13-0, Falcons.

What if one of (or both) of those special teams miscues doesn’t happen? I think the Rams score on at least one of those drives they would have had. At the very least, I don’t think the Falcons score those points due to field position. Both Rams special teams turnovers gave the Falcons the ball with 35 yards or less to go to score a touchdown. They only got one, but what if for both of those drives, the Falcons have to drive the length of the field? Do they score points? I don’t think they do.

If the Falcons aren’t given short fields by the Eagles — for whatever reason — can Atlanta really drive 60+ yards on multiple possessions on this Philadelphia Eagles defense? I’m not sure they can.

On the flip side, are we sure the Falcons defense is good? Sure, they held the Rams to 13 points, but Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw for 259 yards and a TD, Todd Gurley ran for 101 yards on 14 (!) carries, and Robert Woods caught nine passes for 142 yards. Inexperience matters in the playoffs, and the young Rams couldn’t put it in the end zone consistently. That may not be a problem for the Eagles as they are the #1 red-zone offense in the league (65.4%) and 70% at home. The Eagles score when they get their chances.

Are We Sure Atlanta is Good, Part 2?
I don’t mean to pile on the Falcons. Part of my brother’s hatred for all things NFC South that aren’t the New Orleans Saints must be rubbing off on this column.

The Falcons have the eighth-ranked offense in the league and score about 22 points a game. That’s a pretty big change from last year when they scored 33 points a game and were the #2 offense in the league. They still have a lot of firepower, but they’ve struggled this year — particularly against top defenses.

The Falcons played four games this year against teams that finished in the top-10 for defensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) — which is a way of judging defenses based on a league baseline average. Those games were:

  • Week 13 vs. Minnesota (Lost 14-9)
  • Week 14 vs. New Orleans (Won 20-17)
  • Week 16 vs. New Orleans (Lost 23-13)
  • Wild Card Round vs. Los Angeles (Won 26-13)

In those four games, the Falcons are 2-2 with an average of 17.0 points in those four games. Their offense did not break the 350 yard mark for total offense in any of those games, either: 275 vs. Minnesota, 343 vs. New Orleans in Week 14, 331 in the other game vs. the Saints, and 322 last weekend.

So, I guess now is a good time to point out that the Philadelphia Eagles finished fifth in Defensive DVOA, right?

All that said, What is Your Final Prognostication?
Generally, I’m not in the prognostication business after a colleague once referred to me as the “George Costanza of Sports Prognostication”. I leave that to the professionals and those who get paid to be wrong 80-90% of the time. That being said, if you really want it, this is my honest opinion.

This is going to be a fun game, and it’s going to be a lot more competitive than people think. Most of the national media types have already said, “No Carson? Big Problems”. That’s a fair assessment. Nick Foles is not Carson Wentz, but the Eagles as a team are still damn good. There’s plenty of talent for Foles to work with in the backfield with Jay Ajayi and Legarrette Blount along with a nice receiving core of Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz.

The defense is stout and will definitely give Matt Ryan and the Falcons problems. They have struggled against top defenses before, and who’s to say that will change? This is the one thing that gives me great pause. All week, you’ve been hearing how the Eagles can’t win and how the Falcons will run in and run away with a win with no difficulty. If that’s the case, then why is the spread STILL Falcons -3 after six days?

I’m not sure people truly believe the Falcons can win this game, and now that I’m finishing this column, I don’t think they will, either.

Eagles 23-17.