Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC
FALCONS AT A GLANCE
Key player: Since this section is supposed to be about a key PLAYER, we’ll focus on the guy who is the embodiment of the head-scratching, alternately frustrating and exhilarating offense of Steve Sarkisian: one Julio Jones. By any measure one of the greatest receivers in the league, Jones in 2017 piled up plenty of yards (1,444 in the regular season) but only three (!!!) touchdowns. Granted, some of that is because opposing defenses quintuple-teamed Jones once the Falcons crossed midfield, but the Falcons are down all across the board offensively under Sarkisian. If the Eagles give Jones the space of a shoebox to breathe, they’ll be in real trouble.
Why they’ll win: Defense wins championships, right? If you believe that old coaches’ cliché, and there’s plenty to back it up, Atlanta’s in prime position to take a run at another Super Bowl. The defense, so young and inexperienced last year (the Patriots didn’t come back from 28-3 by beating the ATL offense), is working on a whole new level this year. Last week, Atlanta held Todd Gurley to the least consequential 101-yard game you’ll ever see, and Jared Goff looked like he was playing from two touchdowns behind the moment the game started. Atlanta’s defense can shut down an entire game on its own, and then all the offense needs to do is be marginally competent. And an offense with Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Jones can handle marginal competence; Ryan has notched a quarterback rating of at least 100 in five straight playoff games, just one short of Joe Montana’s record.
Why they’ll lose: Not sure if you’ve noticed this, but the Falcons have a bit of trouble closing out games. Both last year and this, Atlanta has lacked the Patriot-esque gene that allows them to choke out an opponent and declare victory early in the third quarter. No one who’s watched 15 minutes of this team has any confidence that Atlanta will hold a lead of anything less than nine touchdowns, and that’s the way the Eagles can win this. Keep the game within 10 points heading into the final frame, and nature will take its course and the Falcons will shrink.
EAGLES AT A GLANCE
Key player: You’d think replacing a 33-touchdown, 3,300-yard quarterback in Carson Wentz would be difficult, and you’d be exactly right. Yes, the Eagles were fortunate to have the best backup in the NFL on the bench in Nick Foles, but the operative word there is “backup,” not “best.” Foles has that remarkable 27-touchdown, two-interception season in his history, but in more recent history, he got benched for Nate Sudfeld because of ineffectiveness in the season finale against Dallas. Two-and-a-half games isn’t nearly enough to pass any kind of definitive judgment on anyone, but it’s reasonable to say that if the Eagles expect Foles to save them, rather than a combination of LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, and ground-and-pound, there could be some heartbreak in Philly come Saturday night.
Why they’ll win: Lest we forget, a team from Georgia in control of a game suddenly saw that game slip from their fingers when the opposing team brought in a new quarterback. This is not to say that the Eagles’ hopes rest on Nate Sudfeld, but at this point, would you be surprised if a team from Georgia found a new and fascinating way to implode? No, the key to victory for Philadelphia in truth remains a more classic path: keep control of the ball and the clock, pound away at the Falcons D, turn Malcolm Jenkins loose on the Falcons’ receivers, profit. Philadelphia finished the season with the league’s fourth-best defense, and that unit will have to shut down Atlanta to give the less-than-pristine offense a chance.
Why they’ll lose: The Falcons absolutely chewed up the Rams, a team that bears more than a superficial resemblance to the Rams, from the overhand-bowling-ball running game to the rapid-turnaround head coach making his postseason debut. As strong as the Eagles’ offense was, ranking seventh overall, the Falcons ranked just one slot behind them…and Atlanta’s dressing out everyone. Foles will be making only his second start in the playoffs; his first was a loss to the Saints after the 2013 season. If, like the Rams, the Eagles can’t get the rushing game going and Foles struggles to find his receivers, this one will be over before sundown.
The last time these two met, Donovan McNabb’s Eagles blew out Michael Vick’s Falcons 27-10 in the 2004 season’s NFC championship. This time around will be a wee bit different. The Eagles are the first #1 seed to be an underdog to a #6 seed, and there’s a reason for that: you lose your franchise QB after he’s secured you the top seed, and you are, to put it politely, screwed. Ajayi can only do so much by himself; the Falcons are going to post an early lead, the Eagles will get within a possession late, everyone will bring up the ghosts of Super Bowl LI, and then the Falcons will close out the game and postpone the inevitable fan heartbreak for another week.