The sellout crowd at Lincoln Financial Field will be cheering for the first No. 1 home seed in the history of the NFL playoffs to open as an underdog.
When MVP candidate Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL late in the regular season, the Eagles still went on to finish 13-3 and earn the top seed. But with backup quarterback Nick Foles struggling in the final two games, the Eagles suddenly looked vulnerable.
The Atlanta Falcons stunningly lost to the New England Patriots in overtime in last year’s Super Bowl despite building a 28-3 lead. They weren’t nearly as dominant this season and were able to sneak into the playoffs with the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. Then they picked up a 26-13 victory in the wild card round on the road against the formidable Los Angeles Rams.
The Falcons have an MVP quarterback of their own in Matt Ryan and a capable defense, setting up what looks to be a terrific divisional playoff matchup.
Here are the five matchups that will determine the outcome of Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game in Philadelphia:
5. Eagles LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Falcons DE Vic Beasley.
Big V, as Vaitai is affectionately known as in Philadelphia, played very well when Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters went out with a knee injury. Big V had the difficult task of protecting Wentz and Foles’ blind side and for the most part, he succeeded. There were some technical breakdowns from time to time, but the improvement was evident by the end of the regular season. Beasley, who slides from the left end spot where he’ll see Lane Johnson to the right end position, can wreak havoc as he posted 29 tackles and five sacks during the season. For the Falcons to win this game, Beasley must push his way through gaps and get past Big V on the way to Foles.
4. Falcons backup G Ben Garland vs. Eagles DT Fletcher Cox.
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald destroys a lot of interior offensive linemen with his combination of slashing quickness and bullying power and leverage. He was in the Falcons’ backfield on nine of the first 15 snaps last week before a protection adjustment helped slow him down. Garland is in for Andy Levitre, who went on IR with a torn triceps before the playoffs began after starting all season. He’s lighter and not as sturdy as Levitre and Cox is an elite interior lineman capable of living in the facemask of quarterback Matt Ryan if not double-teamed. There’s a reason the Eagles paid Cox in excess of $100 million.
3. Falcons CB Desmond Trufant vs. Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery.
Trufant has improved tremendously and coach Dan Quinn mentioned how that quickness and technique have helped Trufant this season. Trufant will have a difficult matchup in the slot most likely against Jeffery, who is terrific at winning 1-on-1 balls in the air. But Foles had difficulty meshing with Jeffery against the Raiders and Cowboys as most of the targets downfield wound up going to tight end Zach Ertz. Trufant will surely try to limit Jeffery’s presence in the middle of the field while the Eagles will almost certainly attempt to target him more.
2. Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Eagles CB Jalen Mills.
Jones missed practice Tuesday to rest an array of injuries, but he’ll be ready to go when the game begins Saturday. Mills has played very well this season yet struggled a bit lately with big wide receivers making double moves. Mills has performed much like you’d a seventh-round draft pick — with good moments and shaky moments. Jones compiled 1,444 yards receiving and three touchdowns with another score in the playoff win against the Rams. Mills will get help from the safeties, but he’ll have to stuff Jones at the line and avoid the big play.
1. Falcons QB Matt Ryan vs. Eagles DE Brandon Graham.
Graham was a notable player left out of the Pro Bowl after he registered 9.5 sacks and constantly invaded the opponents’ backfield. Graham’s eighth season was arguably his best and he’ll need to be at his best against an All Pro-caliber player such as Ryan, who has proven how great he can be in the playoffs. Ryan was effective against the Rams because he had time to throw the football. Graham’s presence in Ryan’s face with the home crowd cheering could go a long way toward the Eagles winning and advancing to the NFC Championship. Ryan’s lone road playoff win in his career came last week against the Rams.
–Andy Jasner, Field Level Media