The Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons are set to play each other this Thursday evening at Lincoln Financial Field. In order to preview the Eagles’ Week 1 game, I reached out to our associates over at The Falcoholic. The deferential Dave Choate (@WordsandBeer) kindly took the time to answer my questions about the upcoming contest. Let’s take a look at the answers. (Also don’t forget to check out my Q&A exchange over at TF.)
1 - What’s different about this Falcons team from the last time these two teams played back in January? Is Atlanta better or worse than they were then?
The biggest difference, I hope, is in the offense. Steve Sarkisian has talked all offseason about how he’s more comfortable with his playmakers and play calling at the NFL level, which should translate to fewer boneheaded calls, especially near the goal line. The addition of Brandon Fusco at right guard (a slight upgrade) and Calvin Ridley at wide receiver (a potentially major upgrade over Taylor Gabriel) should help this team to do more against tough defenses like Philadelphia’s this season.
On defense, the Falcons have downgraded at defensive tackle (Terrell McClain/Jack Crawford instead of Dontari Poe), added a promising young cornerback in Isaiah Oliver (who may not play Thursday night), and have poured a surprising amount of resources into improving their special teams. The net result of this, I hope, is a better Falcons team, even if the improvements are more likely to be slight than drastic.
2 - Do you think the Falcons losing the way they did to the Eagles has them extra motivated to come back to Philly and win this time? How about from a fan perspective? To what extent are fans bitter about that game?
I certainly hope it will provide some extra motivation. The Falcons have lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion way too many times in the last decade, and as deserving a champion as the Eagles were a year ago, it has to stick in their craw that they were a handful of bad plays on offense and Keanu Neal’s failed interception away from potentially winning. There’s no way they should be flat for an opportunity at some revenge, no matter how small that revenge may be.
For fans, I think it’s the same. Nobody watched the Eagles win the Super Bowl and thought “damn, we were better than them.” But we did know how close the game was, and we know how talented this Atlanta roster can be. We’re hoping for a better result this time.
3 - What is the Falcons’ biggest strength? Where do they have the biggest edge in this game?
The biggest strength should still be the passing game, and that should still be this team’s edge, even against a formidable Eagles defense. Matt Ryan is one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, this offensive line is a top ten unit both talent and production-wise, and they have a borderline elite group of pass catchers with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Austin Hooper, and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the mix. If the Falcons falter throwing the ball this year, it’s going to be a bad sign for their season outlook.
It would be ridiculous to say the Falcons should be able to pass all over the Eagles--Philadelphia’s pass rush alone probably ensures that won’t happen--but given the talent present it’s still their biggest strength and likeliest edge.
4 - What is the Falcons’ biggest weakness? What concerns you the most about the Eagles?
Honestly, I’m concerned that the defense is going to struggle to stop the run, and the pass rush is still something I’m going to need to see to believe. The team added some beefy defensive tackles and has one of the most physical secondaries in the league, but they’re still smallish up front and it’s not immediately clear that they have the pieces to be an elite run defense this year. The pass rush should be good--Takkarist McKinley, Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett are all nasty--but again, I need to see whether they have the pieces to be great.
And even with Nick Foles back under center, that’s what concerns me about the Eagles. There’s no question that Philadelphia has a strong offense, and especially in the first week as this defense finds its footing, I worry they’ll have lapses.
5 - Who wins this game and why? Score prediction? And what are your expectations for this Falcons season?
I do think the Falcons can win this one, and at the risk of being fairly scorned I’m going to predict they’ll do it, by a score of 24-21. Neither result would surprise me, but with the Eagles being a bit banged up and the Falcons looking very healthy outside of (of all things) long snapper, I’m feeling bullish about their chances. I think Atlanta will be able to do more on offense this time around, and while I’m expecting Philadelphia to have a great deal of success running the ball in particular, I think the Falcons can edge it out.
I think this Philadelphia game will help me figure out what’s ahead, but this team has the talent to make a deep run and a third place schedule, so I’m expecting a season around 11-5 and a playoff berth. Whether they can turn that into a Super Bowl run like 2016 depends on health, the strength of the NFC’s many elite teams, and Atlanta’s improvement.