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Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles – NFC Divisional Round Preview

The 2017 NFL Season has not been an easy one for Falcons fans. Sure, they made it into the Play-offs, for the second straight season. Sure, they ran out *relatively* comfortable winners against the highly potent Los Angeles Rams. But things have been…not all well. The once historically great offence, the one that tore teams limb from limb in 2016, is no longer. Replacing it is a good, if basic, version of itself. That good, if basic, version of the Falcons offense, along with their ACTUALLY PRETTY GOOD defensive teammates, have to go toe to toe with the conferences’ number one ranked side.

 

Eagles of Death…Football

Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles found themselves perched atop the NFC rankings with a very nice 13-3 record to go with it. A balanced offense met a stingy defence to create a magic the Philly faithful won’t soon forget.

Unfortunately for the boys in green, things aren’t as easy as doing the same thing as they did in the regular season. Carson Wentz, in the process of earning himself a Pro-Bowl nod, saw his season cut short in victory of the Rams. The ginger genius is something of a talisman in Pennsylvania (or Wentz-ylvania, if you will). His absence saw the return of Nick Foles under centre after a two year sabbatical. Since, things have not been the same.

Carson Wentz was putting up something resembling an MVP calibre season before his year was cruelly cut short Photo Credit: Matt Rourke/AP Photo

While Foles impressed in his second debut, things have looked pretty shankey from the 6th year journeyman. Unlike his counterpart in Minnesota, Foles hasn’t benefited from a near season-long team-building exercise, and has looked a few steps out of sync with his receiving weapons.

 

Cruel Runnings

For Foles, however, he may not be required to rely on his accuracy. Over the course of the regular season, Philly boasted the leagues 3rd best rushing offense. That form will almost certainly be required to defeat the Falcons. The contrasting styles of LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement, with LONDON BORN JAY AJAYI sprinkled in for balance, means Eagles opposition can never be too comfortable when defending the ground game. To succeed against a Falcons defence growing in confidence, Pederson will requre every member of his running back room.

 

Don’t Call It A Comeback

On the other side of the ball, we see the Atlanta Falcons offense. The once stellar offensive unit is a shell of its former self. Despite some pretty outstanding play from reigning MVP, Matt Ryan, the Falcons have struggled to put points on the board. While they’ve looked good in spells, Steve Sarkisian’s offense is not anything close to as productive as the one he inherited.

That being said, we might well be seeing signs of life. A week 17 division match up, to secure play-off football, saw “Sark” call a pretty solid game all things considered. Despite not putting many touchdowns on the Carolina Panthers, Sarkisian put his side in range to score via the ever-reliable Matt Bryant. Similarly, going against one of the leagues more revered defensive minds in Wade Phillips, Sark’s second half adjustments to focus on the running game cannot be commended enough. Sarkisian managed to mastermind a 26-13 victory over the Rams, controlling the clock in the process. He might just be picking this up after all.

Atlanta leaned heavily on their run game in the Wildcard round. They’ll hope to establish something similar to down the Eagles Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty Images

A repeat performance is not guaranteed, not least against one of the leagues best defences. Ranking 1st against the run, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who saw so much success in Hollywood, are going to struggle. Atlanta will need some next level production from their *not great* guard duo in Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland.

 

Into the Airwaves

Atlanta are going to need an MVP calibre showing from Ryan once again, in order to succeed on Saturday night. Should Number 2 be able to evade Philly’s mauling front seven combinations, he could find joy targeting the leagues 17th ranked pass defence. In last seasons 24-15 loss, Julio Jones managed to haul in 135 yards from 10 receptions.

In their last two meetings, Julio Jones has combined for 276 yards. He’ll need a similar production to secure victory for the Falcons this season. Photo Credit: Matt Rourke/AP

Something we hadn’t seen much of until the Wildcard round was Sarkisian opting to line Freeman and Coleman up in a wide receiver role. This sort of versatility, along with more than a smattering of screens, is going to be required if the Falcons should hope to down Jim Schwartz’ green wall of a defence.

 

Hold On To Your Heart

As with every playoff game, the man Willo is nervous. Frankly, I didn’t expect to see the Falcons reach this point, given how great the Rams had been all season. This isn’t a case of “I’m just happy to be here”, however. The memories last season ended still linger heavily. Given the Quarterback situation in Philadelphia heading into this game, I would say there has never been a better opportunity for the Falcons to earn a trip to the Championship game than right now.

It will not be easy. As we’ve seen, Nick Foles has two modes. Maybe a week off might see “seven touchdowns in one game” Foles, rather than “wildly inaccurate even over short yards” Foles. Zach Ertz will act as a safety net, one De’Vondre Campbell and Keanu Neal must contain. Despite their obvious talents, Alshon Jeffrey and Nelson Agholor match up against Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford pretty well.

8 field goals from the Ageless Wonder would be nice though… Photo Credit: Curtis Compton/AP

This one may well come down to the little things. I have no qualms over whether the Falcons defence can keep the Foles-helmed Eagles offense at bay. Rather, whether I can trust if Steve Sarkisian has the ability to out-smart Jim Schwartz in their own back garden. Unfortunately, he’s not earned that trust from me just yet. I’ll have the Eagles in a low scoring affair.

 

Follow Thomas Willoughby on Twitter, @Willo290592.

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