NFL Playoffs 2018: Falcons' newfound balance a problem for Eagles in NFC
Atlanta is coming off a dominating performance in L.A. and Philadelphia is without Wentz
A month ago, the Eagles were 10-2 as they headed into their Week 14 matchup with the Rams. The Falcons were 7-5, were hosting the NFC South-leading Saints, and any hope of the playoffs hinged on a strong regular-season finish. And that's exactly what happened; Atlanta beat New Orleans and won two of their last three games to land the sixth and final wild-card spot.
The Eagles, meanwhile, have seen their fortunes turn. Yes, they beat the Rams that afternoon but franchise quarterback Carson Wentz suffered a torn ACL and his season is over. His replacement, Nick Foles, hasn't even been replacement level, which is an understandable cause for concern for Eagles fans, coaches and Foles' teammates.
On paper, this is exactly what the Eagles want: the top seed with home-field advantage facing the sixth seed that did the heavy lifting against an explosive Rams team, and in the process insuring that Philly wouldn't have to face the fourth-seeded Saints. The reality, however, is much more complicated. Because Nick Foles isn't Carson Wentz and coach Doug Pederson is now tasked with finding a way to win -- without his best player while facing one of the postseason's hottest teams.
How to Watch
Who: Falcons vs. Eagles
Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
When: Saturday, Jan. 13, 4:35 p.m. ET
For the Falcons, balance is key
In Week 7, the Falcons were 3-2 and coming off back-to-back home losses to the Bills and Dolphins. And while Matt Ryan and Julio Jones remained the centerpiece of the offense, it otherwise looked nothing like the outfit that ranked No. 1 in the league a season ago on their way to the Super Bowl. Gone was the run-pass balance and along with it, the Falcons' offensive identity. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who had the unenviable job of trying to replace Kyle Shanahan, was ID'd as the culprit.
Whomever was to blame the criticism was fair; the loss to Miami looked a lot like last Saturday's game against the Rams: The Falcons dominated the first half. Inexplicably, they abandoned that first-half game plan -- which relied heavily on the running game -- and when it was over, they had found a way to lose to Jay Cutler and the Dolphins. There were no such mistakes in Los Angeles. The Falcons ran early, they ran often, and they didn't stop running till the final whistle.
Of Atlanta's 72 total offensive snaps, 39 were runs. They controlled the ball for 37:35, including 13:07 in the third quarter, which started with the Falcons getting the ball and going on a 16-play, 76-yard drive that ended in a Matt Bryant field goal to give the Falcons a 16-10 lead. Of those 16 plays, 12 were runs. And when you see DeVonta Freeman doing things like this:
It makes all the sense in the world to stick with it. And that's exactly what Sarkisian did. The Falcons' next drive was 10 plays and included four runs and again ended in a Bryant field goal. When it was over, Atlanta had run on 60 percent of its second-half snaps, and in the process controlled the clock and, ultimately, the game.
"It was tough sledding, for sure," Ryan said, via ESPN.com, "but we felt like that was our best plan for success, and the guys bought into that. We all had that belief, and we were very clear about our plan coming into this game, and it shook out the way we wanted it to."
This is a far cry from what we saw in that Dolphins home loss but credit to Falcons coach Dan Quinn not panicking. Of course, he's been here before; a year ago, the Falcons started 4-1 before back-to-back losses had everyone outside the building doubting a team that looked great on paper. A few months ago, the Falcons were 4-4 before righting the ship.
"We'll reset it and get right to it because in our league you've got to go back and get ready to play again," Quinn said in October. "You've got to get the corrections first. All of the ones are teaching moments, but you don't really get tested until you're in the fire."
The Falcons passed their first test against the Rams in part because they didn't get away from one of their strengths.
"We had to stay committed [to the run]," Quinn said Saturday. "Their pass-rushers are talented, where we didn't want to make it into a drop-back game. We thought there would be more space early on in the run game. There wasn't, but we knew we were going to stay committed as part of our plan."
This Saturday will be different. The Rams ranked 22nd against the run, according to Football Outsiders' metrics, while the Eagles are No. 3. But we also saw glimpses of how the Falcons might attack Philly; Ryan didn't look downfield against the Rams but instead leaned on short throws -- including screen passes -- to complement a running game that occasionally featured misdirection plays designed to keep an aggressive defense off-balance.
This screen pass, for example, is basically an extension of the Falcons' run game:
Something to keep an eye on in the coming days: The weather. Any advantage the Eagles' defense might have as a better run-stuffing unit than the Rams could be mitigated by the weather. The long-range forecast is calling for wind and rain, conditions that could favor a run-heavy, short-pass offensive game plan.
For the Eagles the question becomes: Can their defense find a way to slow up a suddenly diverse offensive attack while also hoping that Nick Foles jumpstarts an offense that has looked sluggish in recent weeks?
For the Eagles, it's all about Nick Foles
Here's the good news: In Nick Foles' first start for the injured Carson Wentz, in Week 15, he completed 24 of 38 passes for 237 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-29 win over the Giants. And before that, during Foles' first stint with the Eagles, he started 10 games in 2013 and completed 64 percent of his throws with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and a passer rating of 119.2.
Here's the bad news: In Foles' last two starts he's 23 of 49 for 202 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 48.17. For the season, Foles has appeared in seven games and has thrown five touchdowns and just two picks but his 79.5 passer rating probably better reflects who he is, which is confirmed by Football Outsiders' value-per-play metric. Among quarterbacks attempting fewer than 200 passes during the regular season, Foles ranks 15th out of 26. He's just ahead of Kevin Hogan and Mike Glennon but just behind Bryce Petty and Blaine Gabbert. Given this it probably goes without saying but we'll do it anyway: Foles is performing well below replacement-level, and this goes a long way in explaining why Las Vegas has the Eagles as 3-point underdogs at home.
According to SportsLine's Stephen Oh's simulations, Philadelphia is still clinging to a win probability of 51 percent, but this is contingent on Foles playing like a replacement-level quarterback. The simulations expect Foles to throw for fewer than 200 yards and 1.3 passing touchdowns and if he can limit the turnovers (the simulation projects 0.7 interceptions for Foles) and lean on the running game (the simulation projects 4.5 yards per carry for the running backs), the Eagles could have a chance to pull the upset.
Philly's rushing attack ranks just 17th but Atlanta is 20th against the run, which means the Eagles can lean on Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount to do basically what the Falcons did to the Rams a week ago. And when Foles does drop back, he'll do so against a defense that is 19th against the pass. The Falcons rank 25th against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, and 14th against tight ends. Foles has to take advantage of those matchups and find Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz. The lingering concern, of course, is which Foles will show up. The guy who lit up the Giants or the one who flailed through the final two weeks of the regular season.
"You have to keep looking at yourself critically," Foles said, via ESPN.com. "Obviously [last] Sunday and the week before, that's not how I want to play, but if anyone has ever played a sport, you can't just sit here and say, 'OK, that's what it is.' I've had games like that and I've come back from it and I've played at a higher level. So you keep looking at it, you keep grinding, you keep working, and I thought today was a great step forward in the right direction. But it's not just about today. I just have to keep adding them up and when it comes to game time, just go out there and play."
Another disadvantage for Foles and the Eagles: Postseason experience.
Ryan's passer rating in nine postseason starts: 102.4. By comparison, Foles has started just one playoff game though he played well: 22 of 33 for 195 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and a passer rating of 105.0 against the Saints in 2013. If Foles replicates those numbers Saturday, he will have done his part. That said, the Eagles lost to the Saints in that wild-card matchup despite Foles' performance.
Who ya got?
These are two teams going in different directions, in part because the Eagles lost their best player. But also because the Falcons' have found balance on offense. And that balance -- which includes a heavy dose of the running game -- could prove to be the difference. That said, it would be foolish to count Philly out. For starters, it's a home game. And if Foles can be just an average quarterback, the Eagles will have a chance.
And while we expect a close game, we also expect Atlanta to prevail and return to the NFC Championship Game for the second straight season.
Our prediction: Falcons 21, Eagles 19
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