Welcome to Wild Card Week, where we find out which poor (or lucky?) team gets to come to Lincoln Financial Field for the Philadelphia Eagles’ first playoff game of 2017.
Let’s jump right into five random Birds questions as we enter the postseason ...
Who should Eagles fans be rooting for this weekend?
If you’re playing the long game and already bought your Super Bowl LII tickets, you probably want the Buffalo Bills to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars (better the Eagles against Tyrod Taylor than the Eagles against the Jags defense) and the Tennessee Titans to beat the Kansas City Chiefs because, well, frankly, the Titans aren’t even playoff material and therefore would make good fodder at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Sticking with the NFC, though, you’d have to make a monumental argument to convince me that Eagles fans should be pulling for the Los Angeles Rams over the Atlanta Falcons. Maybe Jared Goff is somehow a favorable matchup in cold-weather Philly, but there’s just no way you wouldn’t rather face Atlanta right now. In the NFC South game, the Carolina Panthers have to be the pick over the New Orleans Saints. Sure, the Eagles might be able to run against the Saints, but something tells me you’d much rather go up against Cam Newton with an NFC Championship trip on the line.
So, really, who should Eagles fans most want the team to play on Jan. 13?
Julio Jones would be scary, but nothing else about Atlanta screams “We’re going to come in and own the Linc!” Assuming the Falcons, who are sub-.500 against playoff teams and spotty in big moments this year, fall to the Rams, the Eagles’ first postseason opponent would come down to either the Saints or Panthers. And as we noted before, it just seems far more reasonable to bet against Cam, especially if the Eagles defense plays anywhere near its potential, than New Orleans’ ultra-balanced attack. Bring on the Panthers and hope you can get enough going on the ground.
Is there any merit to the notion that vanilla Week 16-17 game-planning made Nick Foles and the offense much worse than it is?
Maybe. Look, the team finished in rather uninspiring fashion, and Foles didn’t help, but let’s remember No. 9 has also played for a total of only, like, two and a half games so far. In half of that time as a starter or injury replacement, he’s performed not just adequately but above and beyond (see: Week 14 vs. the Rams and Week 15 vs. the Giants). Perhaps he truly has lost his pocket presence or reverted to old flaws since then, but I think everyone would be wise to consider Tommy Lawlor’s recent words — a caution that just because Doug Pederson didn’t go all out with his Week 17 game-planning and pull out an ugly victory with Foles doesn’t mean the whole offense can’t look more alive in mid-January.
Who is the most important Eagle on each side of the ball for the playoffs?
On offense, this is a tie between Foles and running back Jay Ajayi. Because the quarterback play has been so discouraging and disjointed in recent weeks, it’s ludicrous to overlook the reality that Philadelphia isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs unless Nicky Franchise steps up at least a little bit. But Ajayi should play a role just as, if not more, important as long as Pederson feeds him the rock. The ground game has long been a crutch for Foles in the QB’s best games, and Ajayi has been responsible for big plays in every game he’s had an opportunity. It’s time he’s put to use.
Defensively, it’s not one player so much as the entire unit. And that’s both because of the Eagles’ offensive woes and the fact that Jim Schwartz’s group has operated best through teamwork. (Hooray for cliches!) Seriously, though, when the pass rush works, so does the secondary. When the front seven pushes, the linebackers can anticipate the run. For the sake of continuity, though, let’s go with Nigel Bradham. An upset pick, perhaps, but with the potential amount of top-level rushing attacks the Eagles could face, it’s going to be up to Bradham to stand pat, relay the calls and put that sideline-to-sideline speed to use in keeping plays in front of the “D.” Brandon Graham could get the nod as the team’s best edge presence, too, and Malcolm Jenkins is equally as vital as a mainstay at the back end or in the slot.
What’s your way-too-early-to-jinx-the-actual-game prediction for the Eagles?
If we ride with the assumption that Atlanta goes down and then tip the cap in Philly’s favor and propose a Panthers upset over New Orleans, let’s go Eagles in a 23-21 Divisional Round affair. That’s an incredibly premature forecast (and can be disregarded when Carolina inevitably loses), but in a way, it also symbolizes the ambiguity of this NFC playoff picture. The Eagles may very well be the No. 1 seed, but they’re also unofficial underdogs, and yet no one in the conference is that much more formidable than anyone else. Predict all you want, because no one’s got a clue. (And that, to be honest, could be the best news for any potential playoff run if you’re an Eagles fan.)