The playoff field is set, and the Eagles will pit Nick Foles against one of three teams featuring a quarterback with Super Bowl experience.
Good for the Birds, then, that this isn’t QB vs. QB, but a team game with running backs, receivers, defenses, and punters who accidentally leave their sweatpants on. I’m not as down on Foles as everyone else is, but it’s hard to feel confident after witnessing that agonizing New Year’s Eve performance. Still, the Eagles have an elite defense and a home field crowd, and you never know if 27-2 Nick Foles might show up instead of the lumbering signal caller we saw in recent weeks.
The Birds will play the Falcons if Atlanta wins in Los Angeles, which doesn’t seem likely. Otherwise, the winner of New Orleans and Carolina comes to Philly.
From most preferable to least preferable, here’s who I think you want to play:
A sixth-seeded dome team playing outside in January is ideal here, though if you wind up playing Atlanta, that means they beat Jared Goff and Todd Gurley in round one and they’re coming to Philly with a whole lot of confidence.
But Matt Ryan has historically been average at Lincoln Financial Field, going 1-3 with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. His completion percentage is down 5.2% this season and he threw for just 4,095 yards, his lowest total dating back to 2010. His 20 touchdowns were the fewest in his career outside of his 2008 rookie season.
It’s a down year by his standards, though the numbers are a bit borked because of drops and teammate miscues, namely the 12 interceptions he’s been saddled with this year:
This became an INT on Matt Ryan’s statsheet.
He literally couldn’t have walked out there and placed it in a better spot.
12 INT’s this season…3 of them are Ryan’s fault. pic.twitter.com/pDrrTSw7AZ
— Brian Billick (@CoachBillick) December 24, 2017
What the Falcons did was find ways to win close games this year. They won five road games by margins of 6, 3, 5, 3, and 3 points, respectively. After a pair of bad, but tight, home losses to Buffalo and Miami, they finished the season 7-4, losing at New England, at New Orleans, at Carolina, and home to Minnesota. I feel like they were a solid squad but overlooked a bit simply by being third-best in a stacked division. Everybody kept comparing them to last year’s Super Bowl squad, which performed at a level that was always going to be impossible to replicate in 2017.
Matchup-wise, the Eagles defense should do well enough against Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who split the load about 60/40 for the NFL’s 13th-ranked rushing offense. The biggest issue I see is Jalen Mills or Ronald Darby trying to match up with Julio Jones, who only snagged three touchdowns this season but was second in the NFL with 1,444 receiving yards. New Jersey native Mohamed Sanu is a respectable WR2 who grabbed five touchdowns on 703 total yards.
Defensively, Atlanta is stout, finishing the season with these marks:
- 8th in scoring defense (21 points allowed per game)
- 10th in total defense (323 yards allowed per game)
- 8th in rushing defense (105 yards allowed per game)
- 12th in pass defense (217 yards allowed per game)
Ironically, the Falcons only allowed one 100 yard rusher in 2017, and that was Jay Ajayi before he was traded to the Eagles. He rumbled for 130 on 26 carries back in Week 5.
The Eagles beat Carolina (and the officials) on the road, on short rest, a few months back.
If you recall, the Eagles defense was the real MVP of that game, forcing a pair of key turnovers in Panther territory that Carson Wentz was able to capitalize on. The offense, which stalled in the fourth quarter, was then bailed out again when the defense made a couple of huge stops to seal a 28-23 win in a contest where the Eagles had 10 penalties for 126 yards and Panthers had 1 penalty for 1 yard.
That won’t be the case at the Linc, where the home field crowd will no doubt play a role.
And that’s something to think about. I thought home field might benefit the Eagles because of the weather, but with Foles playing horrendously in the bitter cold, I’m not so sure that makes a positive difference here. You would think a pair of dome teams, and one that plays in Charlotte, would struggle in January temperatures, but I think the home-field advantage is going to be more about crowd factor and familiarity and less about the elements.
Anyway, another thing to remember about this game is that Halipoulivaati Vaitai started for Lane Johnson, who missed the matchup due to a concussion. Big V will be at left tackle this time around, but he’s gotten much more experience overall since these teams met in October.
Also in October, Jim Schwartz’s unit held Carolina running backs to just nine yards on the ground. Cam Newton had 71, which probably shouldn’t be surprising. He’s dangerous on his feet, but he does it differently than a guy like Russell Wilson, who killed the Eagles by extending plays and moving sideways and backwards, throwing up passes that strained the lapsed coverage and resulted in a whole lot of pass interference. Newton will pull the ball down and gash you for 10 or 15 yards on a broken play. The Eagles are better equipped to defend that, especially if you remember how Nigel Bradham was a laterally-moving behemoth on that Thursday night:
Carolina finished the season 7-3 after that Eagle loss. They beat the Falcons and Vikings at home and lost by 10 in New Orleans. The only truly shitty performance was a 17-3 loss in Chicago that seems like a distant memory.
Defensively, the Panthers are the best rushing unit the Birds can face. They’re only allowing 88.1 yards on the ground this season, good for third in the NFL. In pass defense, they rank 18th, behind New Orleans and Atlanta. The Eagles could theoretically have more success throwing the ball against a very average Carolina secondary, so if you’re looking for Nick Foles to have a better matchup on paper, this is it. Kurt Coleman, the ex-Eagle, finished the season injured and probably won’t be 100% for the playoffs. Jairus Byrd, a hot name in 2013 free agency, is now Coleman’s backup.
New Orleans beat Carolina twice this year, so it looks likely that they do it for a third time (at home) and head up to Philly, unless you put stock in the narrative that it’s hard to beat a team three times in one year. Maybe there’s some credence to that. There’s certainly a lot more film to look at, and the wrinkles and strategies seem magnified against division rivals who know what you’re all about it.
It starts and could probably end with Drew Brees, a Super Bowl winning quarterback who beat the Eagles in the playoffs at Lincoln Financial Field five years ago. He leads the league in completing 72% of his passes (a single season NFL record) and is also first with 8.09 yards per attempt. Brees is second in the NFL with a 103.9 rating and 6th with 271 yards per game. Most of his numbers are top-10 among all quarterbacks:
No need to spend too much time there. Brees is Brees.
Beyond him, you’ve got the best one-two running game in football with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Their numbers are superior to Freeman and Coleman in every way, and what they do especially well is catch the football out of the backfield. Kamara is New Orleans’ second best receiver, grabbing 81 of 100 targets for 826 yards and five touchdowns. Even Ingram has 58 snags for 416 yards.
Think about how the Seahawks’ killed the Eagles with empty sets, then consider that the Saints can do it with Kamara lined up in the slot:
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) December 31, 2017
Kamara and Ingram have caught 139 of 386 total pass attempts this season (36%), while 11 other guys have caught the other 247 passes. Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. are the WR1 and WR2 the Birds have to face, and they’re no slouches either.
It’s hard to say how the Eagles might do in this department. They played against four running backs who finished top-50 this season in total receptions.
Here’s what they did against Philly:
- Melvin Gordon – one catch for 7 yards
- Christian McCaffrey – 10 catches for 56 yards, 1 touchdown
- Carlos Hyde – four catches for 22 yards
- Todd Gurley – three catches for 39 yards
Looks good on paper, but the Chargers were bad back then. McCaffrey was a win, since the Eagles basically shut down the Carolina wideouts instead. Hyde was catching balls from C.J. Beathard, and Gurley was limited in receiving but ran for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
So if the Eagles do face the Saints, I think Nigel Bradham, Mychal Kendricks, and the slot corner (plus Malcolm Jenkins) are going to have to come ready to play. One thing the Eagles did well early in the season was tackle in the open field, and that’s going to be a huge storyline if this matchup comes to bear.
Now, everybody talks about how good the Saints are defensively, but they’re statistically middle of the pack in most yardage categories. Points per game, they rank 10th, and they’re in a 7th-place tie with 42 sacks (2.6 per game).
They are what they are because they’re superior in the turnover department, with 20 interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries, and a +7 overall give/take margin. And those recoveries came on 19 forced fumbles, which is another top-five statistic. A lot of what New Orleans does is bend, don’t break, and make a big play.
They did this through their first four games in December:
#Saints defense in 4 games in December:
•18 points/game allowed
•311 yards/game allowed
•34% on third down
•5 forced fumbles
that’s playoff football, y’all
— John Sigler (@john_siglerr) December 26, 2017
Last week, they lost in Tampa Bay even with Jameis Winston throwing three interceptions. The Bucs’ QB went 95 yards for a game-winning drive and finished with 363 passing yards overall.
It’s an excellent team that still found a way to lose five games, so they aren’t world beaters. I think the Eagles defense can do a decent job against Kamara and Ingram, but I don’t like Drew Brees looking at the New York Giants film and seeing how Eli Manning had success dinking and dunking and sluggo-ing up and down the field.
Carson Wentz beats all three of these teams in Philadelphia, even the Saints, but Nick Foles is another story entirely.