Divisional round preview: Atlanta Falcons-Philadelphia Eagles

It's not as simple as Falcons' reigning MVP vs. Eagles' struggling backup

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When the Falcons have the ball: Atlanta delivered one of its better performances of the season in the 26-13 upset of the Rams, the result of Steve Sarkisian finding a near even touch distribution for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and double-digit looks for Julio Jones.
 
Matt Ryan made the biggest plays, finding Mohamed Sanu on a perfectly executed quick screen that went 52 yards just moments after the Rams trimmed the lead to six early in the fourth quarter. Then, Ryan lobbed an off-balance throw to Jones for the eight-yard dagger and his only passing touchdown just two plays later.  
 
But after the hellish assignment of blocking Aaron Donald, Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and Atlanta’s front have another potential nightmare looming in Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and coordinator Jim Schwartz’s attacking wide nine. Philadelphia’s ‘D,’ No. 4 in points and yards allowed, finished the season on a high note after an early-December fade.
 
Schwartz’s secondary added long and athletic second-rounder Sidney Jones two weeks ago, and he’ll be in the corner mix with Ronald Darby and others. What the secondary lacks in speed it compensates for with physicality, and Schwartz has versatile safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod capable of playing up close or deep.
 
When the Eagles have the ball: Nick Foles couldn’t have played much worse in the two games following his four-TD starting debut in Week 15. He lacks the pocket strength and creativity of Carson Wentz, and that drop-off is the primary reason the NFC's No. 6 seed Atlanta arrives at Lincoln Financial as three-point favorites over the conference's No. 1 seed.
 
That means Philadelphia’s No. 3 run game (first in time of possession) has to take the air out of the football with new feature back Jay Ajayi and some combination of LeGarrette Blount and rookie Corey Clement. It also means Alshon Jeffery, who fell off the map in the final two games, and TE Zach Ertz must capitalize on their chances in tough matchups with Desmond Trufant and Deion Jones, respectively.
 
Dan Quinn’s ‘D’ has morphed into a press-heavy coverage ‘D,’ with Trufant and Robert Alford playing very well, perhaps putting the onus on nickel Brian Poole sticking with much improved slot WR Nelson Agholor.
 
The Eagles’ offensive line, with All-Pros inside and out in C Jason Kelce and RT Lane Johnson, should create an advantage, although rookie Tak McKinley and Vic Beasley are coming on and Grady Jarrett is a terror inside.
 
Special teams: The Falcons might not be here without Matt Bryant, who has converted 11 consecutive field-goal attempts, including three from 50-plus as Atlanta’s red-zone offense continues inspiring little confidence. Eagles rookie kicker Jake Elliott also has consistently displayed calm in crunch-time situations, including a 48-yard game winner to clinch the top seed in Week 16. Both clubs have middle-of-the-pack coverage and return teams but Atlanta’s third phase loomed large in Los Angeles, where two fumbles by Rams All-Pro RS Pharoh Cooper were recovered and led to an early 13-0 lead.
 
Coaching: Quinn’s in-game coaching leaves something to be desired — he eschewed an obvious two-point conversion late last week — but his young ‘D’ has flourished into a force late for the second consecutive season. Plus, Quinn has his team ready no matter the situation. Pederson’s playoff debut as a head coach comes after his offense really struggled late to adapt with Foles. However, his staff is highly regarded and experienced, and the Andy Reid disciple can help change the Reid-playoff-failure narrative with a big showing when it’s least expected.
 
Prediction: It’s not as simple as reigning MVP vs. struggling backup. Philadelphia has the more complete team, which should take pressure off Foles, while Atlanta hasn’t been dominant in any phase this year and is a southern dome team that must brace for tough conditions. But the combination of experience behind center and a club gaining traction when it matters — the Falcons have won seven of nine and have stars shining all over —propels them back to the NFC title game.