One guy holds the key to the Eagles beating Atlanta

And it’s not Nick Foles.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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Football is the ultimate team game. Eleven guys line up to face the other team’s 11 and in order for a team to succeed, especially in the NFL playoffs, every player has to do their job.

With Carson Wentz under center, the Eagles offense was one of the best units in football, in part because he made it easier for the other 10 players to do their jobs. The offensive linemen all seemed to block better, the receivers seemed to get open quicker and more often, and the running game — especially after Jay Ajayi came to town — seemed more dynamic than any other point in the Doug Pederson era.

In the three games since Ajayi was inserted into the Eagles offense, the team averaged 196 yards on the ground. The balance Pederson promised this season finally seemed possible.

The shift in offense was subtle, in part because Ajayi didn’t become the workhorse back everyone expected him to be.

In his seven games with the Eagles this season, Ajayi never rushed for more than 91 yards — he accomplished that one on just seven carries against Dallas — and he never touched the ball more than 16 times in any game. LeGarrette Blount, who despite being benched during the Week 2 loss in Kansas City, had double-digit carries in every other game before Ajayi joined the team, had just two games in the second half of the season in which he carried the ball more than nine times.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Philadelphia Eagles
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Clement was at times a spark himself, but he never had more than seven touches after Week 9. And once Ajayi entered the lineup, Wendell Smallwood had nine touches the entire rest of the season, and didn’t even dress until the season’s final game when Pederson opted to rest Ajayi.

Not only was the offense more balanced between run and pass, but the running back rotation was extremely balanced as well. And that was all by design, to set up a situation where the No. 1 seed in the NFC had a full stable of fresh backs to head into the playoffs.

And yet, with Wentz out, none of that matters as much as Pederson hoped it would. Now, it may come down to how successful Ajayi can be against the Falcons again.

Quite literally everyone in the NFL outside of the Eagles’ locker room is waiting for and expecting Nick Foles to lose this game. He’s shown over his short time taking over for Wentz that he’s not at the level the Eagles had hoped after seeing what he did against the Giants. His physical limitations have ostensibly chopped the playbook in half. Wentz’s ability to move in the pocket allowed for pass plays that took more time to develop, and his penchant for making something out of nothing meant every third-and-long was a chance for the Eagles to make a splash play.

With Foles, third-and-long seems insurmountable, which is why the Eagles need to work on first and second down to make those third-down situations more manageable. That’s where Ajayi will have a chance to shine.

Yes, if Foles plays well the Eagles will win. They’re a better team than Atlanta in almost every other facet of the game. But Pederson can’t go into his first playoff game as a head coach hoping Foles suddenly turns into a playoff-caliber quarterback. He has to plan to win another way. And that’s why Ajayi was brought in.

Ajayi was traded to the Eagles from Miami where he rushed for more than 1,200 yards last season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. For the Dolphins this season, in seven games, he was averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, but in his time with the Eagles he’s upped that to a career-best 5.8, amassing more than 400 yards on the ground on just 70 carries.

Yes, Ajayi has just 70 carries with the Eagles, as the team has protected him every chance they could, in hopes he is ready to go for this precise situation. He was held out of the Dallas finale in part because of a lingering knee issue and in part because why would you play anyone who you need for a game that matters in one that doesn’t? And yet, the guy the Eagles hope to ride all the way to the Super Bowl hasn’t had a 100 yard game since October, when he was still with Miami.

The opponent that day: Atlanta.

Ajayi is the only Eagles player to face the Falcons this season, and he racked up 130 yards on 26 carries, both season bests. It was just the second 100-plus yard game of the season for Ajayi, which he followed up with two clunkers before getting traded.

Since coming to the Eagles, Ajayi has games in which he’s carried the ball 8, 7, 5, 9, 15, 12 and 14 times. And that’s his entire workload.

Ajayi has also been in the playoffs just once in his career, when he rushed for 33 yards on 16 carries in the Dolphins’ 30-12 loss to Pittsburgh last season.

That’s not to say Ajayi can’t do it. He was a fantastic addition to the team at the trade deadline, and would have been a complementary piece to Wentz’s offense that had the Eagles as sure-fire favorites to make the Super Bowl.

But suddenly after three weeks of Nick Foles under center, the Eagles have to become a run-first offense, and while Blount and Clement and even Smallwood will have something to say about the Eagles’ success this week against eight and nine-man fronts the Falcons’ defense shows them, it’s Ajayi who could (read: should) be asked to carry the load. How he handles the moment, perhaps even more than Foles, will determine how far the Eagles fly this postseason.

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