The top team in the NFC this season makes its return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 in search of its first Lombardi trophy.
The Philadelphia Eagles make their return to the playoffs as the number one seed in the NFC and three point home underdogs to the Atlanta Falcons. The team fought through serious injuries to key contributors to win a franchise record-tying 13 games this season.
Starters Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Ronald Darby, Darren Sproles and MVP candidate Carson Wentz all missed significant time during the regular season, forcing the team to replace high quality players. The absence of Wentz is significant, but Foles and company have the make up of a team capable of overcoming such an injury.
Offense: QB Nick Foles, HB Jay Ajayi
Foles is a high variance quarterback who needs to step his game up if the Eagles want to contend for a championship. Over his last five quarters of football (Foles did not play the last three quarters of the Week 17 loss to the Cowboys), Foles threw for 202 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on 23 of 49 attempts, good for a 47% completion percentage. After replacing a top MVP candidate, these numbers will not garner confidence and support from the fans. To silence the whispers for third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld, Foles needs to take care of the ball and make the throws an NFL quarterback is expected to make.
The Eagles have prepared Ajayi for a heavier workload in the playoffs ever since they traded for him. After averaging almost 20 carries per game with the Dolphins this season, Ajayi has been limited to 10 carries per game with the Eagles. For the Eagles to have success, Ajayi needs to produce as a lead back should against a weak rushing defense (Falcons rank 20th in run defensive DVOA). His 5.8 YPC signal a good opportunity for the Eagles to exploit the Falcons weakness. The team plans to rely heavily on the run game, but Foles’ ability to make timely throws and good decisions is key to the team’s success.
Defense: DT Fletcher Cox, CB Jalen Mills
Expect Cox and the defensive line to get after Matt Ryan, something they’ve shown capable of doing all season. The Pro Bowler has an advantage on the inside against both guards for the Atlanta Falcons. Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer, the starting guards for Atlanta, ranked as the 52nd and 56th best guards respectively, according to Pro Football Focus. A strong defensive line like the Eagles’ should be able to dominate the trenches and help control the game.
On the backend of the defense, Mills will be tasked with covering the above average receiving corps of the remaining playoff teams. If the defensive line is constantly getting pressure on the quarterback, his job becomes easy. If there is no pressure, Mills will likely struggle against the likes of Julio Jones. Cox’s ability to wreck a game is key to the Eagles postseason success. His abilities, coupled with a strong defensive front, have the potential to make life easy for an average Philadelphia secondary.
Best Win and Worst Loss
Best Win: 43-35 over Los Angeles Rams (Week 14)
The Eagles walked into Los Angeles after a week spent away from home, lost their starting quarterback for the season and were able to mount a comeback to defeat the NFC West champion Rams. In doing so, the Eagles clinched the NFC East and improved to 11-2 on the season. The most impressive part of this win was the ability of Foles to lead a comeback against a talented Rams defense. The Eagles also were without starting Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz, allowing Trey Burton and Brent Celek to combine for three scores in this game. The next man up mentality that has followed the Eagles throughout the season never felt more real than during this game.
Worst Loss: 24-10 to Seattle Seahawks (Week 13)
Just a week before the impressive performance against the Rams, the Eagles looked like a shadow of themselves in Seattle on Sunday night. The team’s most talented rusher, Ajayi, ran for 35 yards against a stout Seahawks defense. But the headline of the night was the outstanding play of Russell Wilson, who threw for 227 yards and three touchdowns, good for a rating of 118.6.
The defense had no answers, allowing him to escape the pocket and extend drives with his legs. Luckily for the Eagles, the playoffs feature no dual threat quarterback with the abilities of Wilson.
Previous Matchups with Playoff Teams
Week 2: 20-27 Loss at (4) Kansas City Chiefs
Week 6: 28-23 Win at (5) Carolina Panthers
Week 14: 43-35 Win at (3) Los Angeles Rams
Positives: The Eagles were able to win two of three road games and average 28.7 points per game against playoff caliber opponents. Early in the season, the team surprised many with their performance in Kansas City even though it resulted in a loss. The Eagles were able to hold their own against three highly competitive and successful teams this year.
Negatives: The main negative from this set of games is the loss of Wentz to a torn ACL. Other than that, the team did not get much experience against playoff teams this season, as evident by only three of their 16 games coming against teams that made the 2017 playoffs. The team also was unable to take care of business against a Chiefs team that fell apart in the middle of the season.
Performance Leading into the Postseason
The offense has underwhelmed since losing Wentz. Since an impressive performance against the New York Giants in which the team took advantage of great field position, the offense has taken a turn for the worst. In five quarters, the starting offense managed only one touchdown and 19 points against two below average opponents. After leading the league in third down efficiency under Wentz, Foles and the team converted only 1 of 14 third downs against the Oakland Raiders, the 29th ranked team in defensive DVOA.
Luckily for the team, the defense has picked up the slack. Over the last three weeks of the season, the defense allowed an average of 15 points per game. They’ve forced seven total turnovers over that span in route to clinching the number one overall seed in the NFC. Without the defense playing at the high level it currently stands, the team would not be the number one seed. Both units need to show up for the team to have success in the playoffs.
Level of Contender: High
Although few outside the greater Philadelphia area believe in this team, I do. I believe the Eagles have as good a chance as any of the remaining playoff teams at representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. The Eagles own the number one seed in the NFC, meaning the conference runs through Philadelphia where the Eagles, at 13-3, lay claim to the best home record over the past two seasons.
It’ll be a tall task for one of three remaining NFC teams, all of which play their home games in a dome, to beat the Eagles in a cold, harsh environment. I expect the weather to be frigid, the Linc to be rocking and the Eagles to beat the Falcons in route to their first playoff win since 2008.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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