The Eagles are deserved underdogs against the Falcons despite being the top seed. But if underdogs never won, sports would be boring. The question isn’t if the Eagles can win, it’s how. For the Eagles to have their best chances to win, four areas stand out.
Slow the game down, again
One reason the Falcons were able to upset the Rams was that along with keeping Los Angeles off the field with stolen possessions (more on that later), they ground down the clock as well. The Falcons possessed the ball for a ridiculous 37:35, reducing the the time the Rams could have the ball for. Keeping control of the ball is nothing new for the Falcons, who were 23rd in seconds per play in 2016, and were 20th this season. However against the Eagles, the Falcons should take opposite approach, at least to start the game. The more opportunities Nick Foles has, the more he can help the Falcons. When Foles has to throw a lot, he becomes a bad QB, while Matt Ryan, like most good QBs, merely becomes a decent one.
|Attempts||Foles rating||Ryan rating|
Doug Pederson wants to slow the game down, 19th in 2016 in seconds per play and 24th this year, and he’s been pretty good at achieving that goal. If the Falcons want to play along, let them, because tempo isn’t going to help the Eagles beat the Falcons. It didn’t last year. Not counting kneel downs, the Eagles ran 73 plays on 11 possessions, but held the Falcons to 48 plays on 12 possessions. Nearly the entire play count gap was through running the ball, Matt Ryan threw 33 passes to Carson Wentz’s 36, but the Eagles had 21 more called running plays, to 34 to 13. And none of that was skewed by the Eagles having the lead and just killing the clock. With 13:06 left in the game, the Eagles had a 2 point lead. From that point until three kneel downs to end the game, they had a 12-11 pass/run ratio.
Run the ball
The Falcons run defense should give the Eagles opportunities to grind out first downs and eat up clock. The Falcons run defense has been mediocre, ending the regular season 9th in yards, 16th in yards per attempt, and 20th in run DVOA, while the Eagles offense was 3rd in yards and yards per attempt, though 17th in DVOA.
In particular, the Eagles love to run the ball wide, and the Falcons aren’t good at stopping it (nor it should be said, are they terrible at it).
|Left End||Left Tackle||Right Tackle||Right End|
|Adjusted Line Yards||26th||14th||24th||14th|
|Left End||Left Tackle||Right Tackle||Right End|
|Adjusted Line Yards||18th||24th||23rd||23rd|
Adjusted Line Yards per Football Outsiders
The Eagles haven’t been efficient in those areas either. But in the scope of a singular game, efficiency isn’t everything, especially if the game plan is to shorten the game. Big runs would be great, but a series of averages ones can do just fine.
The obvious: turnovers
The Falcons are 8-3 when they get a turnover, 3-3 when they don’t. They’re 6-4 when they turn the ball over, 5-2 when they don’t. The Eagles are 3-0 when they don’t turn the ball over, 10-3 when they do. They’re 0-2 when they don’t get a turnover, 13-1 when they do. None of those are noteworthy, we should expect playoff teams to have good records when good things happen, and decent records when bad things happen.
But again, we’re talking about one game, and the Falcons-Rams game was a great example of how turnovers can change a game. The Falcons “stole” a possession a muffed punt, failed to gain a first down but kicked a FG, and later stole another one by recovering a fumble on a kickoff, then advanced 32 yards to score a touchdown. Two extra possessions, 38 yards, 10 points. In their 11 other possessions, they scored 16 points, while the Rams scored 13 points in their 11 possessions. If the Rams never fumbled and simply went three and out instead, the Falcons at the least lose their three and out field goal, and possibly the touchdown as well, and now you’ve got a completely different game.
While it’s impossible to predict that the Eagles won’t have two special teams turnovers, it’s highly unlikely the Falcons will receive that benefit again. They will have to steal possessions through other means. Should we expect them to?
There is a lot of noise when it comes to looking at fumbles within a season, but Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount (both 1.2%) have normal career fumble rates. If they fumble, it’s not because they’re significantly more likely to than Devonta Freeman (0.9%) or Tevin Coleman (1.1%).
And luckily for the Eagles, Nick Foles is Matt Ryan’s superior when it comes to handing the ball to the other team. Ryan throws an interception on 2.3% of his attempts for his career, and has the same percentage this season. Foles’ career interception rate is just 2.1%. Obviously not a huge advantage, but any edge helps. Perhaps more importantly, the Eagles defense is 6th in interception rate at 3.2%, the Falcons are 30th at 1.4%. The Falcons got lucky against the Rams with turnovers, and they’ll need to again to win the turnover battle against the Eagles.
As noted earlier, the Falcons got 10 points off a short field against the Rams. That’s unusual for Atlanta, who had the 2nd worst starting field position this season, averaging starting at the 25.96 yard line (per Football Outsiders). The Eagles on the other hand had the 5th best, starting at the 29.57 yard line. On the other end, Eagles opponents started at the 28.27 yard line, 17th best average field position. The Falcons defense was nearly as handcuffed as their offense, opponents started on the 29.17 yard line, 24th best. Great field position has contributed to many Eagles wins this season, it may do so again on Saturday.
Ball control, good field position and run it well. The Eagles have played like this all season, and been successful. The Falcons haven’t. The Eagles may not beat the Falcons, but they’ve got a chance.