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January 08, 2018

What they're saying: Eagles' toughest challenge will come from Falcons defense

Eagles NFL
010718_Falcons-defense_usat Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones (45) during the second half of Atlanta's NFC Wild Card win over the Los Angeles Rams.

Now that we know who the Eagles will be facing in the first playoff game of the Doug Pederson era – and that they'll make history as the first No. 1 seed to be an underdog against a No. 6 seed – it's time to start looking at who these two teams match up and why it seems like everyone outside of Philly is writing off the 13-3 Birds.

After a weekend off, the Eagles will return to practice on Monday. But in the meantime, here's a look at what they're saying about the Birds' upcoming matchup with the Falcons, with an emphasis on the defense. 

D-Day

Tim McManus | ESPN.com

Over at ESPN, each team's writer took a look at why they should be excited and why they should be concerned. In an attempt to be fair, I decided to look at the positive one for both the Eagles and the Falcons. Interestingly enough, there's a common theme throughout, one that also happens to be the overall theme of this edition of What They're Saying.

Reasons [for Eagles fans] to be excited: Based on a season-long sample size, this was the ideal draw. Slow to rebound from a Super Bowl collapse against the Patriots, and dealing with the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (now head coach of the Niners), the Falcons were mediocre for much of the season. They experienced a big scoring dip this year, averaging 22 points per game compared to 34 PPG in 2016. The Eagles boast the fourth-ranked defense in football and can gain an edge with their physicality, particularly up front. They are 7-1 at home this season -- the lone loss coming in the regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys in which they rested many of their starters. Well-rested and with the Philly crowd behind them, the Eagles should come out smoking.  [espn.com]

Birds of a feather

Vaughn McClure | ESPN.com

I'd argue that the No. 1 reason for optimism in Atlanta should be "No Carson Wentz," but once again, it's the defense.

Reasons [for Falcons fans] to be excited: The defense continues to play at high level and is fresh off holding the league's top-scoring offense, the Rams, to 13 points. The Falcons are excelling at all levels of the defense, pressuring up front, tackling in the open field and making plays on the ball. First-year defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel has teamed with head coach Dan Quinn to orchestrate a defense that now seems to be feared because of its speed and toughness.  [espn.com]

Picking up the slack

Nate Davis | USA TODAY

The Falcons offense hasn't been anywhere near what was expected heading into the season. Nevertheless, they're one win from returning to the NFC title game, and that's due in large part to better-than-expected play out of the defense.

1. The defenses never rest: The narrative for the 2017 Falcons has focused on their supposed Super Bowl LI hangover and an offense that fell well short of its 2016 standards. Such handwringing overshadowed the continued maturation of a defense that's quietly morphed into one of the NFL's most well-rounded units and will likely be the primary reason the team's NFC title defense succeeds or fails.

Atlanta has allowed just 16.3 points per game over its last six, clamping down on some of the league's best offenses (New Orleans, Carolina, and the L.A. Rams among them). It's a speedy, athletic group that borrows many of the concepts head coach Dan Quinn used in Seattle and will typically load the box with eight players and dare fill-in Eagles QB Nick Foles to beat it. Especially impressive in Saturday's upset of the Rams, who scored more points than any other team in the 2017 regular season, was the play of blossoming LB Deion Jones (10 tackles) and CBs Robert Alford, Brian Poole and Desmond Trufant, who missed last year's Super Bowl run with an injury.  [usatoday.com]

'A complete contender'

Vinnie Iyer | Sporting News

It hasn't just been the defense either. The Falcons offense has been able to produce in a variety of ways. Put them both together, and the reigning NFC champs become a serious threat.

What once may have seemed like a high-scoring playoff affair will likely shift into an ugly, low-scoring game with the elements playing a factor, unlike in L.A. At this point, the Falcons should be totally fine trading a shootout for a drag-out fight.

There's no doubt the Falcons battled an identity crisis like most teams that lose in the Super Bowl — the true source of the so-called "hangover." The fact that they've fought to replicate their 2016 success while pivoting 180 degrees from offense to defense prove they are a complete contender.

Now that they've stunned the Rams, it would surprise no one if they fly higher than the Eagles, too. [sportingnews.com]

Ready to fly

Mike Sando | ESPN.com

One of the things that has helped Atlanta's defense has been its offensive counterpart. By having a successful ground attack, they'll not only be able to thrive in any conditions, but they'll also be able to keep their defense off the field (and rested). 

According to Mike Sando over at ESPN, that makes Atlanta a tough out in the playoffs, even if they advance past the top-seeded Birds:

Ball control could be the way to go against the Eagles, as well, especially if the weather conditions are difficult (some warming from this week is expected by kickoff, but early forecasts suggested there also could be rain). Philly allowed a league-low 3.3 yards per carry to opposing running backs this season, while the Rams ranked 30th with a 4.6-yard average against. That suggests the Falcons might do no better than their 3.2-yard average from Saturday. They could be more weatherproof than the stereotypical dome team, however.

"Atlanta will go from playing on a damp, embarrassing track like that in L.A. to a game in Philly that could be in a snowstorm," a defensive coach from another team said. "They are going to play D, run the ball, throw short passes, run reverses, protect the ball, and you wonder how well Philly can score without its quarterback."

During the Doug Pederson era, the Eagles are averaging an NFL-high plus-4:58 time of possession per game, an unreal increase of 12:16 per game from the Chip Kelly era, when Philly's average deficit was 7:18, largest in the league. There is an asterisk, however. The Eagles are at minus-2:22 per game since a knee injury knocked quarterback Carson Wentz from the lineup for the final three games. That could be problematic against the Falcons.  [espn.com]

Front-loaded

Will McFadden | AtlantaFalcons.com

Over on the Falcons team website, they took a look at how the two teams match up, specifically where each team might have an advantage on Saturday. They see Atlanta's secondary having the biggest advantage over the Eagles wideouts. As for their toughest matchup, they believe that will come against the Eagles tough defensive line.

Toughest matchup: Without Wentz, it’s the Eagles’ defensive line that appears to be the strongest aspect of the team. They are stout against the run and a very good pass-rushing group. The Eagles lead the league in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up just 79.2 yards to opposing teams, and they have 38 sacks on the season. The Falcons offensive line has been tested by some of the best defensive lines in the league this year, so they will be prepared to face Brandon Graham and his fellow linemen, but much of the Eagles’ defensive success starts with their front four.  [atlantafalcons.com]


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