The Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons are set to play each other this Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. In order to preview the Eagles’ Divisional Round playoff game against Atlanta, I reached out to our friends over at The Falcoholic. The venerable Dave Choate kindly took the time to answer my questions about the upcoming game. Let’s take a look at the answers. (Also don’t forget to check out my Q&A exchange over at their site on Saturday.)
1 - The Falcons went from almost winning the Super Bowl to being the No. 6 seed this year. Why the step back?
Primarily, it was offense. The Falcons’ offense in 2017 was not as brilliantly coordinated as it was under Kyle Shanahan, and they took an expected step back because of it. But they also had to battle down the field thanks to lousy field position, they committed a number of truly awful and untimely penalties and turnovers to kill drives, and they saw Steve Sarkisian struggle to get playmakers in positions to succeed. That led to the Falcons scoring about 200 fewer points than they did the year before, and while they were still one of the league’s better offenses on paper, it wound up being a deeply disappointing year. With the defense improving and special teams remaining a mild liability, you can reasonably point to the offense as the major reason for just about everything.
2 - What is the Falcons’ biggest strength? Where do they have the biggest edge in this game?
At the end of the day, it’s their overall speed and athleticism. They can kill you on offense if you slip, because Julio Jones, Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman, and even Austin Hooper are borderline elite athletes who can break big plays at a moment’s notice. The offensive line moves extremely well as a unit, even without starting guard Andy Levitre, and they are generally capable of long drives. Julio alone is a killer.
The defense is even more fearsome, in many regards, because there are so few weak links. They gang tackle, they get to the ball extremely quickly, and the secondary is one of the better secondaries in football today. Cornerback Robert Alford, in particular, has been on a tear of late and has found himself between receivers and the ball very frequently. Any defense with a linebacker as good as Deion Jones is a problem, and really Jones is sort of the face of the unit with his speed, athleticism, and physicality. There are many ways to beat the Falcons, but you’re rarely going to do so because you’re faster or more dynamic than them.
3 - What is the Falcons’ biggest weakness? What concerns you the most about the Eagles?
The Eagles defense is a massive concern. The Falcons have just not been humming on offense this year, as I mentioned above, and Philadelphia certainly has the defense to take them further out of a rhythm. I’m particularly worried about how that Eagles defensive line is going to fare against an offensive line that let Matt Ryan take a ton of heat just a week ago against the Rams. Atlanta has the offensive talent to overcome that, but it’s fair to say they haven’t consistently done so.
At the end of the day, the Falcons don’t have a truly elite run defense and they have a maddening habit of making sloppy, preventable mistakes, but the biggest weakness is that the offense truly does struggle to score touchdowns. If they can only put one on the board against Philadelphia and have to kick field goals otherwise, I wouldn’t feel too confident.
4 - Last year, the Eagles beat the Falcons by running the ball on Atlanta and controlling the clock. To what extent do you think the Eagles can replicate that blueprint?
I think they’ll have a tough time doing so, but I also don’t know that they have a choice. You can still run at Atlanta and fare well on the day, but this run defense has gotten much more disciplined. They swarm to the ball carrier more quickly than they once did, which limits big gains, and you generally can’t really make a huge dent in the defense unless your passing game is also firing on all cylinders. Nick Foles will have to be awfully good to reverse that.
That said, teams have little trouble picking up 100 yards or so on the ground against the Falcons, and they still have their issues getting off the field on third down. I think you have to mix in all of your backs, ride the hot hand, and hope for one or two long, killer drives to wear out this defense and put points on the board.
5 - Does the idea of the Eagles feeling disrespected and being underdogs give Falcons fans any concern? Or are they confident that Atlanta will beat the Eagles?
I think the confidence level is probably higher than it should be. Every team in the NFL is dangerous with the right chip on their shoulder and the right day, and the Eagles are a legitimately terrific team that just so happens to be playing without their star quarterback. They’re probably right to feel disrespected, all things considered, but at the same time I don’t know that it’s really a surprise given the way Foles has played in his starts.
So no, I don’t know that the underdog status for the Eagles is causing Falcons fans any heartburn. I do know that everyone’s a little worried that Foles is going to morph into Joe Montana on Saturday, but that’s primarily because Falcons fans have long memories, and we’ve seen too many backups or struggling starters light up Atlanta. I’m hoping the new-look defense can prevent that, but again, there’s history.
BONUS: Who wins this game and why? Score prediction?
I think it’ll be a slugfest, and a close one. I think Atlanta does win this game with a healthy squad and a resurgent defense, but I have a feeling the offense is going to have a tough time against the Eagles, and that’s going to keep this one tight throughout all four quarters.
I’ll say 20-17, Falcons. An Eagles win would not shock me at all, but I’m hopeful Atlanta’s able to play at a high level yet again and pull off the road win.