The miraculous Super Bowl run of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles nearly ended before it ever really began. The Eagles' jaunt through the NFC playoffs began with a 15-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons at home. But things could have gone differently had a leaping interception attempt by Atlanta safety Keanu Neal not gone so disastrously.
Late in the second quarter, with the Eagles trailing 10-6, Doug Pederson's team got the ball back to begin a drive at their own 28-yard line. Rather than kneel on the ball and head into halftime trailing by four despite starting a backup quarterback, Pederson elected to let Nick Foles sling it and see if he could get some points. On the second play of the drive, Foles attempted to hit tight end Zach Ertz on a crossing route over the middle of the field. Foles was hit as he threw and completely overshot his target. The ball seriously went about 10 feet over Ertz's head, and it should have been the easiest pick of Neal's career.
Two plays later, Foles found Alshon Jeffery for a 15-yard gain, pushing the Eagles into field goal range with one second left on the clock. Jake Elliott knocked a 53-yard field goal through the uprights to cut the Falcons' lead to 10-9. The Eagles' defense held serve in the second half, keeping the Falcons off the scoreboard altogether, while Elliott connected on two more field goal attempts. A few weeks later, they were champions.
On Thursday night, the Falcons have a chance for revenge, while the Eagles have the opportunity to begin their title defense.
Foles is still under center for Philadelphia, which is holding Carson Wentz out for a while longer as he continues his recovery from a torn ACL suffered last December. Jeffery is out for the game as well, still dealing with the effects of a shoulder injury. Stalwarts like Vinny Curry and Beau Allen are gone, replaced by Haloti Ngata and Michael Bennett.
The Falcons, meanwhile, have added talent on both sides of the ball, hoping to rebound from last season's disappointment. The Matt Ryan — Julio Jones — Devonta Freeman — Tevin Coleman core of their offense is still in place, but they added former Alabama wideout Calvin Ridley. The defense brought in Terrell McClain to help out against the run, plus rookies Isaiah Oliver in the defensive backfield and Deadrin Senat on the line.
Can the Eagles begin their quest for a repeat with a win, or will the Falcons deal the champs an opening-week blow? We'll find out Thursday night. But before the game begins, we'll walk through some of the key things to look out for, from a statistical perspective.
When the Eagles have the ball
Let's begin with Foles. It makes sense to start there, given that he is replacing an MVP candidate at quarterback, and he is coming off an MVP performance of his own. Foles went 23-for-30 for 246 yards without either a touchdown or a pick in that divisional round game against the Falcons last year. In the following two games, he completed an incredible 54 of 76 passes for 725 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception, while also catching a score on the Philly Special. Everybody remembers those two games when discussing what to expect from Foles when filling in for Wentz.
Less talked about are the two-plus regular season games he played after Wentz was initially hurt. Whiling finishing out the game against the Rams and starting against the Giants, Raiders, and Cowboys, Foles completed 54.6 percent of his passes and averaged just 4.96 yards per attempt. During his most recent season as a starter, back in 2015, he was not much better: 56.4 percent completions at 6.1 yards per attempt. With the exception of his utterly spectacular 2013 season (during which he threw 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions) and the NFC title game and Super Bowl last year, Foles has been a perfectly average quarterback. He does, of course, have one of the NFL's great offensive coaches scheming him into position for success, but it's important to remember the bigger picture when debating what to expect from Foles on a game-to-game basis.
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Consider also who Foles will be throwing to in Week 1. The Eagles will be without Alshon Jeffery due to injury, but they also lost Trey Burton and Torrey Smith in free agency, plus Brent Celek to retirement. Of the Eagles' 555 targets last season, Jeffery, Burton, Smith, and Celek accounted for 242 of them, or 43.6 percent. Of the 207 targeted passes Foles threw during the regular season and postseason combined, that foursome was the on the receiving end of the throw on 79 of them, or 38.2 percent. That's a whole lot of missing-in-action pass-catchers. And that's not even accounting for Mack Hollins, who played a small role last year but will have to be more of a contributor this season, and is also out for Thursday's game. Foles still has plenty of returning targets such as Ertz, Nelson Agholor, and running backs Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement, plus new arrival Mike Wallace; but things are going to be a bit different for the Philadelphia passing game than they were a year ago, to say the least.
The Falcons, meanwhile, are returning almost their entire defense from last season, plus a few new playmakers. Adrian Clayborn is gone, but he's replaced by 2017 first-rounder Takkarist McKinley, who will line up across from Vic Beasley to form one of the most athletic edge-rusher combinations in the league. Beasley ranked in the 99th percentile of athleticism among NFL edge rushers when he came into the league back in 2015, while McKinley's quick first step around the edge helped him produce 1.67 sacks plus tackles per loss per game across his final two college seasons -- a considerably above-average figure. Atlanta also returns one of the league's top secondaries, with Keanu Neal joined by fellow safeties Ricardo Allen and preseason star Damontae Kazee, plus corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, slot man Brian Poole. Atlanta's entire defense, as we discussed prior to last season, is absolutely stocked with top-flight athletes.
In the running game, it will be interesting to see what kind of plan the Eagles have in store for Ajayi. They acquired him at least year's trade deadline but he was lightly-used over the second half of the regular season, carrying just 70 times over seven games. His usage shot up during the playoffs as he carried 42 times for 184 yards, but only nine of those totes came during their Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. Reports have indicated that the team plans to use him as more of a feature back this season, but Pederson and company will surely want to mix in Clement (who is a better pass-catcher) and possibly Darren Sproles as well. For what it's worth, Ajayi himself tore through the Falcons for 130 yards on 26 carries last season when he was still with the Dolphins. He also now has Pro Football Focus' top run-blocking offensive line clearing the way for him.
An under-discussed aspect of Philadelphia's run last season was the performance of rookie kicker Jake Elliott. (At least it's been under-discussed outside Philadelphia.) Elliott nailed 39 of 42 field goal attempts during the regular season and all seven of his tries during the playoffs. That's an absurd 93.8 percent conversion rate -- far better than the league averaged of 83.0 percent. Take away four of his makes to get him down to league average, and you might take the Eagles from 13-3 to 11-5. Knock him down even further to his collegiate conversion rate of 77.9 percent, and their record might fall a bit more. Elliott's follow-up to his spectacular rookie exploits bears watching.
When the Falcons have the ball
Just as they did on offense, the defending champions lost several contributors from their Super Bowl-winning defense. Philadelphia's defensive line last year was one of the best and deepest in the NFL, consisting of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Timmy Jernigan, Derek Barnett, Chris Long and Beau Allen. Curry was cut. Allen signed with the Buccaneers. Jernigan is injured. That's 40.5 percent of the snaps from last year's group. Luckily, they signed Haloti Ngata to pick up Allen's slack in the running game, and traded for Michael Bennett to play a versatile role all over the line as a pass-rusher and run-stuffing monster.
The entire group will have its hands full on Thursday night, as the Falcons sport one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. The Falcons were torn apart on the interior during their two playoff games last season as Andy Levitre sat out due to injury, but he's back at full strength and should be playing alongside Alex Mack at center, Wes Schweitzer at the opposite guard, and Jake Matthews and Ryan Schrader at the tackles. That group's zone-blocking chemistry clears the way for the dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, one of the league's most well-balanced and versatile running back tandems.
Freeman takes the lead role and operates more often between the tackles, but Coleman can just as quickly scoot through a seam and is versatile enough to line up in the slot or out wide and school a linebacker or safety off the line of scrimmage. Freeman has essentially been completely shut down in three career games against the Eagles, however: he has 32 carries for 74 yards and 11 catches for 87 yards in those three contests. That's an average of just 3.74 yards per touch, compared to his career average of 5.18 per touch against all other opponents.
Coleman has taken on a larger role in the team's offense with each passing season of his career (89 touches as a rookie, then 149, then 183) but his efficiency has waxed and waned. He averaged 4.6 yards per touch as a rookie, 6.3 as a sophomore, and 5.1 a year ago. The team made a bit more of a concerted effort to get him involved in the running game last season but he did not break as many big plays as he did the year before, and he also saw his catch rate drop off from the sky-high 77.5 percent he posted in 2016.
That duo will have to find its way against a defense that allowed a first down on only 17.8 percent of opponents' rushing attempts last season, the eighth-best mark in the NFL, while yielding touchdowns on just 2.08 percent of rush attempts, the fifth-best figure in the league. Complicating things for Philly will be the absence of linebacker Nigel Bradham, as well as the need to work in the replacements for some of their stalwarts on the defensive line.
In the passing game, Atlanta's Matt Ryan saw his performance fall off sharply after a career season in 2016. In particular, he struggled to find much of a rhythm with his No. 1 target, Julio Jones. Jones posted the second-lowest catch rate of his career at 59.5 percent, and scored only three touchdowns on the season. Even though he's never been much of a touchdown-producer, that rate of scoring was considerably lower than his career norms. During his five healthy seasons prior to 2017, Jones scored 38 touchdowns on 456 catches and 718 targets. That means 8.3 percent of his catches and 5.3 percent of his targets turned into scores. Last year, however, with just three end zone trips on 88 catches and 148 targets, those rates plummeted to just 3.4 percent (catches) and 2.0 percent (targets).
Philadelphia lost an important contributor from last year's secondary in Patrick Robinson, but returns starter Jalen Mills, trade acquisition Ronald Darby (who missed much of last season after dislocating his ankle in the team's first game), and 2017 second-rounder Sidney Jones, who is expected to play a much bigger role this season. We don't yet know if the Eagles will use shadow coverage or play sides, but that trio will have to deal with not just Jones, but also Mohamed Sanu and the shifty rookie, Ridley. That should be a fun matchup all night.