Much like in the 2017 NFL Playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons have found themselves looking at a favorable road. They avoided a trip to the hostile Superdome in the first round, and they’ll get a matchup against a No. 1 seed who lacks its MVP-caliber quarterback Saturday evening in the Divisional Round.
Atlanta may be favored on the road against the NFC’s top-seeded team, but the Eagles are still anything but a pushover, even without their young star quarterback. Aside from the big loss of Carson Wentz, this is a rested, healthy, complete team looking to prove to all the doubters – and there are a lot of them – that they’re still capable of a deep postseason run.
In short, this is going to be a street fight.
If the favored Falcons are going to leave Philly with a win, there are two things they have to do correctly, and failing to do both will very likely end their season.
1. Atlanta must hold Philly’s run game in check
Don’t let the hot-take artists fool you: Nick Foles is not going to have a big passing day. He is a master of the underthrown ball, and the Falcons feast on quarterbacks who do that. One of his favorite targets is tight end Zach Ertz, and the Falcons are one of few teams with linebackers who have enough athleticism to keep good tight ends in check.
If the Eagles are going to put points on the board, it’s going to be their running game that shoulders the load. Get used to hearing these names: Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. The Eagles have a two-headed running threat; Ajayi is the speedy back, and Blount is the bruiser. The Falcons need to stop both, and that will be reliant on whether or not Atlanta’s defensive line is ready to stand up to a Philadelphia offensive line that’s better than most.
Ajayi has already had a huge day against the Falcons this season, though it wasn’t in an Eagles uniform. He ran for 130 yards on 26 carries for the Miami Dolphins in a 20-17 win over the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 15 – another game where the Falcons knew they needed to limit the run to win. They couldn’t, and they didn’t.
Ajayi was traded to Philadelphia on Oct. 31. He has averaged 58.3 rushing yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry with the Eagles.
2. Atlanta’s offense must play turnover-free
This is especially true if the Falcons can score early points and put pressure on Philadelphia’s offense to answer: three-and-outs aren’t necessarily a bad thing for Atlanta in this game. Turnovers, on the other hand, would be catastrophic, and they’re facing a defense that’s excellent at getting takeaways.
In the regular season, the Eagles ranked No. 4 in the NFL in the number of turnovers forced, with 31. That’s an average of nearly two per game, and if the Falcons turn the ball over twice or more Saturday, especially in their own territory, they’re significantly reducing their chances of a win.
The field position battle might prove most important in a cold-weather game with two good defenses on the field. If the Falcons hand the Eagles the ball in Atlanta territory – much like the Rams did for the Falcons last week – they’re not going to win in a hostile environment.Follow @Sean_Breslin