Can the Eagles actually beat the Falcons?

Atlanta is a winnable game. Right?

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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The Eagles got a gift this weekend when the Atlanta Falcons beat the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card playoff round. This is not to suggest the Falcons are a pushover this week, or that the Eagles should look past the No. 6 seed. The Falcons are the defending NFC champions and Matt Ryan is still the reigning NFL MVP.

But, gosh. Had the Rams won, the Eagles would be facing New Orleans this coming Saturday and there is no way this Eagles team is beating that Saints team. (Remember that next week if the Eagles win.)

That said, the Eagles head into the divisional playoff round as home underdogs against the Falcons, as the line opened at -2.5 in favor of Atlanta. It’s not often the No. 1 seed is an underdog in the playoffs, let alone to the No. 6 seed, but the Eagles’ fortunes have changed over the last few weeks, to say the least. Meanwhile, facing the spectre of losing in the Super Bowl in historic fashion then missing the playoffs entirely, the Falcons went on quite a run the second half of the season, winning six of their final eight games, including three of their last four, to lock in a spot in the playoffs.

From Week 10 on, Atlanta crushed Dallas (had that game gone the other way, Dallas could have possibly made the playoffs) and beat the Seahawks in Seattle (the game that ultimately decided the final playoff spot). They won at home to Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Carolina (which locked their playoff fortunes and kept the Panthers from winning the NFC South division title), and lost only to Minnesota at home and at New Orleans.

Then, in the playoffs, the Falcons traveled across the country and made the Rams’ offense — the best offense in the NFL — seem totally overwhelmed. The Falcons topped LA 26-13 Saturday night, dominating on defense and special teams, before setting flight for Philly as one of the hottest teams in the NFL.

And still, when Eagles fans saw the result they were happy, because they knew if the Saints won Sunday, the line wouldn’t be two-and-a-half points. The Eagles actually have a chance this weekend. Here’s a look at how.

1 vs. 6

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Philadelphia Eagles
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Let’s get a little history out of the way first. Since the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams in 1990, a No. 1 seed has hosted a No. 6 seed in the divisional round 21 times. The top seed has a record of 16-5 in those games.

Overall in the playoffs, the No. 6 seed is 6-16 against top seeds, as the Pittsburgh Steelers actually beat two No. 1 seeds en route to winning the Super Bowl following the 2005 season.

The Eagles have been involved in the 1 vs. 6 game several times in the past — most recently as the No. 6 seed, when the 2008 Eagles traveled to beat the New York Giants in the divisional round. That season, both No. 6 seeds won, an occurrence that happened in 2010 as well. Since 2010, though, the No. 6 seeds are 0-5 in the divisional round.

In Philly, the No. 6 seeds are 0-2, as the Eagles topped Minnesota during their 2004 season Super Bowl run and beat sixth-seeded Atlanta two years earlier, before losing at home in the NFC title game.

Quarterback battle

2016 MVP Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz...only on of them is playing this weekend.

2016 MVP Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz...only on of them is playing this weekend.

James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Ryan is an MVP. Nick Foles … is not.

When Carson Wentz went down with his ACL injury against the Rams, Foles came in to help lead the Eagles to victory. For the next two weeks — including a solid offensive effort against the woeful Giants — many in town talked up Foles as a viable fill-in for Wentz, touting his previous stint as an Eagles starter and his past playoff experience, albeit one game (which the Eagles lost to a No. 6 seed at home, for what that’s worth).

Since then, Foles has looked bad against Oakland (in a win) and worse against Dallas (in a short outing, which ended in a loss), completing 53 of his 97 throws since being put into the lineup after Wentz’s injury. His completion rate of 54.6 percent is more than 5 percent below his career average. In his last two outings, Foles was 23 for 49 with one touchdown and two interceptions. His QB rating against the Cowboys was 9.3. No, that number is not out of 10.

Ryan, on the other hand, was named second-team All-Pro by Pro Football Focus, behind Tom Brady. One could make a case that Ryan took the spot Wentz might have earned had he been healthy all season. Alas, with Foles facing Ryan this weekend, the gap in quality at the quarterback position is as wide as any matchup this season. The level of confidence each team has in their quarterback is, as well.

Eagles offense vs. Falcons defense

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Rams
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Let me backtrack for one second. Foles is not facing Ryan this weekend. I said that merely to make this point: The two quarterbacks in an NFL game never actually face one another. They both face off against the other team’s defense. And yet, given that Ryan is the other quarterback, the Foles-led Eagles offense is going to have to score some points against the Falcons’ defense this weekend. Probably.

The Eagles hope to be able to run the ball against the Falcons, going so far as to rest Jay Ajayi in Week 17 and for much of the week of practice during the bye. Expect Foles to hand off a lot this Saturday, but expect the Falcons to be ready for it.

Atlanta was ninth in the NFL in rushing yards against in 2017, giving up 104.1 yards per game. In total, the Falcons did end up with a top-10 defense in yards and points against.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that over the last two weeks of the regular season, the Falcons defense doubled down on stopping the run, holding Carolina to just 87 yards rushing on 24 attempts in the season finale win, while holding the Saints’ two Pro Bowl running backs to a combined 86 yards on 31 rushes in the Week 16 loss.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams
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MVP candidate Todd Gurley did rack up 101 yards on just 14 attempts against the Falcons defense on Saturday, but 59 of them came on just two plays. In the first half, Gurley had 45 yards on eight carries, but outside of a 26-yard run in the second quarter, he had 19 yards on the other seven rushes. In the second half, Gurley had 56 yards on six carries, but his huge 33-yard run in the fourth quarter notwithstanding, Gurley was held to 23 yards on five carries as the Rams had little choice but to abandon the run down two scores.

Every defense is subject to chunk plays, which means the Eagles are going to have to look for those opportunities with Ajayi, Corey Clement or LeGarrette Blount when they come. Because otherwise, the Falcons are going to make Foles beat them. And he’s given no indication he can.

Eagles defense vs. Falcons offense

NFL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles
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Last year, the Falcons had one of the top offenses in football, Ryan was the league’s best quarterback and Julio Jones was the most feared receiver in the league. And the Eagles beat them at the Linc and held Atlanta to just 15 points.

This season, it took a long time for the Falcons to get over the hangover of blowing a huge lead in the Super Bowl, coupled with the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. This is a very different offense under Steve Sarkisian, and it’s something the Eagles defense hopes to exploit.

If the Eagles are going to win Saturday it’s going to be in the trenches. Per Football Outsiders, the Falcons had the eighth-best offensive line in both run blocking and pass protection, giving up just 24 sacks this season. That will be strength against strength, as the Eagles had the top-rated run defense in the NFL, giving up under 80 yards per game on the ground.

The Birds had the 17th-ranked pass defense in terms of yards, but according to Football Outsiders, the pass defense ranked seventh in the NFL (though the rush defense ranked third.)

Perhaps this is an oversimplification of the situation, but if the defensive line of the Eagles can stop the run and make Matt Ryan beat them, then on passing downs disrupt Ryan enough to force bad throws that could lead to punts or turnovers, the Eagles have a shot.

Special teams

The Eagles’ special teams haven’t been very special this season, but neither have the Falcons’. Having said that, Atlanta did force two turnovers against the Rams on special teams, which directly resulted in their road playoff victory. The Eagles have dealt with injuries to the special teams all season, but none of that really matters now. They’ll need to come up big against the Falcons Saturday. Field position will matter. So will the crowd.

Home field matters

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles
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The Falcons were 10-6 this season, finishing the year 5-3 at home and 5-3 on the road. The only game the Eagles lost at home this year was the season finale against the Cowboys.

Last season the Falcons were 11-5 en route to the Super Bowl, winning more games on the road than at home, with one of just two road losses coming at the Linc. The Eagles finished last in the NFC East in 2016, but were 6-2 at home.

In two years under Doug Pederson, the Eagles are 13-3 at home. And while the Falcons have proven to be just as good on the road as at home in that span, historically the franchise has not been great on the road in the playoffs.

Atlanta is 10-13 all time in the playoffs, but just 4-10 away from home and 4-8 in road playoff games. The Falcons are 4-5 in the divisional round, but have never won a divisional playoff game on the road. If the crowd gets loud, and the defensive line plays as well as they have all year, the Eagles have a shot.