ATLANTA - When the Atlanta Falcons earned the sixth seed and wild card spot in the NFC playoff race, one knew that the reigning NFC champs could make the case to be the dangerous “sixth seed” to make a run for a Super Bowl in the month of January.
After defeating the top-seeded Los Angeles Rams on the road 26-13 in the NFC Wild Card game, the Falcons further solidified their message.
Even more, Atlanta displayed the idea that playoff experience matters when going through the grueling journey of competing for a Super Bowl.
With one win under their belts, the Falcons now turn their attention from the sunny West Coast to the cold northeast to take on the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Divisional game Saturday evening in Lincoln Financial Stadium.
Temperatures are expected to reach a high of 46 and a low of 16 Saturday, the typical cold environment for early January playoff game for the Eagles.
The Falcons are no strangers to Lincoln Financial Field.
Last season, the Falcons went to Lincoln Financial and walked away with a 24-15 loss to then-rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who threw for 231 yards and then running back Ryan Matthews rushed for two touchdowns.
The Eagles’ defense stifled the Falcons’ offense, limiting quarterback Matt Ryan to one touchdown, held the offense to multiple field goals and penalties hurt Atlanta when it mattered the most
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Even more, Atlanta has playoff experience with Philadelphia dating back to 2003 and 2005, when the Falcons lost to the Eagles in the 2002 Divisional Playoff Game and the 2004 NFC Championship game behind the play of former quarterback Michael Vick.
On Saturday however, Ryan – who is 3-4 against the Eagles since being drafted into the NFL in 2008 – will look to use last year’s run to the Super Bowl and prior playoff experience to lead the Falcons to their first postseason victory over the Eagles since 1978.
The Eagles will be without their main signal caller and leader on offense in Wentz, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury.
The Falcons, however, know Philadelphia still presents a dangerous threat with quarterback Nick Foles and running backs Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount.
Falcons linebacker Deion Jones said in an ESPN article that Foles is still a very solid quarterback.
“He's still a good quarterback and you can't sleep on him," Jones said.
Jones is right, and in the Eagles' final three games this season, Foles threw five touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Falcons cannot give up give up big plays in the passing game.
The Eagles leading receiver in the passing game is tight end Zach Ertz, who has caught 74 passes for 824 yards and eight touchdowns.
Beyond Ertz, Philadelphia’s other targets – Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith – have combined for 1,987 yards and 19 touchdowns.
If Foles is given time in the pocket, he has shown that he can make passes down the field. It will be important for defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Takkarist McKinley and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to get pressure on Foles. The Falcons rank 12th in pass defense (giving up 214 yards per game).
The biggest threat for the Falcons, however, will be slowing down Ajayi and Blount.
Ajayi ranks second in yards after contact per rush (2.35) and averages 5.8 yard per carry since leaving the Miami Dolphins to join the Eagles.
He has rushed for 873 yards for the year, but 408 have come with the Eagles. Blount has tallied 766 yards, averaged 6.3 yards per carry and two touchdowns this season.
Before coming to Philadelphia, Ajayi played against the Falcons with the Dolphins, where he rushed for 130 yards on 26 carries, leading Miami to a 20-17 victory against Atlanta in Week 6. Not to mention, he rushed for the most yards against the Falcons’ defense this season.
Without Wentz, the Eagles will rely heavily on their running game, which ranks third in the league averaging 132 yards per game during the season.
Eagles head coach Doug Pedersen will look to get the ground game going early in the game but the Falcons’ defense – which finished the season ranked ninth in rush defense (104 yards per game) – has been solid down the stretch of the season.
Last week against the Rams, the Falcons allowed the NFL’s second leading rusher Todd Gurley 101 yards on 14 carries but a third of them came from a long 33-yard run. Atlanta held Los Angeles to 13 points.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn knows how important it will be to limit the production of Ajayi and Blount.
That means the defensive linemen must play their gaps and the linebackers must be ready to make big stops against Ajayi and Blount, something they did not do last season when the Eagles rushed for 208 yards.
Offensively, Atlanta ended the season ranked eighth in total offense (averaging 365 yards of total offense) and 22 points per game.
The Falcons scored 26 points against the Rams but 14 of them came from Matt Bryant field goals and extra points. They also went 2-of-4 in the red zone.
The Falcons’ ability to move the ball down the field will not be much of an issue, but taking advantage of red zone opportunities will be key.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who combined for 106 yards in the Rams victory, will need to duplicate solid production on the ground to open up the passing opportunities for Ryan.
The Eagles finished the season ranked fourth in total defense (giving 306 yards per game), first in run defense (79) and 17th in pass defense (227).
If the rushing attack starts strong, Ryan could take advantage of a weaker Eagles secondary with his weapons in Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.
With many still remembering Atlanta’s collapse in the Super Bowl, the Falcons have an opportunity to write their wrongs and avenge last season’s memory and move one step closer for another chance at a Super Bowl in Minneapolis in the first week of February.
Kickoff is set for 4:35 p.m.
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