5 key Eagles matchups vs. Falcons

5 key Eagles matchups vs. Falcons

If you've been living under a rock this week, you might not have heard that the Eagles are underdogs against the Falcons at home.

Yeah, that's a No. 6 seed as the favorite over a No. 1.

It seems like some of the Eagles are using that as a little extra motivation; some don't give a hoot. But it's not all that surprising given the way the Eagles finished the season and given the way backup Nick Foles played down the stretch.

While the Eagles aren't favored, they absolutely can win on Saturday. They have a pretty good shot too. Winning these five matchups would go a long way in making it happen:

Julio Jones vs. Eagles' corners
Julio Jones is the closest thing the NFL has to one of those Monstars from the movie Space Jam. Yeah, I know it's a different sport, but Jones is kind of what it would look like if a football player got incredible skills pumped into him to make him some alien super freak. He's 6-4, 220 and plays just as big. The scary part is he's just as speedy and dangerous with the ball in his hands. He's not just a fade or go-route risk. He can catch a slant and take it to the house.

The Eagles have seemed hesitant all season to travel a corner, so don't expect Ronald Darby to follow Jones on Saturday. It seems likely that Jalen Mills will stay on the left side of the defense and Darby on the right. They'll see Jones as much as he lines up on their sides.

Jones has been dealing with an ankle injury but he's going to play in this game and he'll probably have a big role too.

Lane Johnson vs. Vic Beasley
Lane Johnson has played at a ridiculously high level all season and finally got his due when he was named to the Pro Bowl and a first-teamer on the All-Pro team. Johnson has handled some of the best pass-rushers in the NFL all season, so he should be able to stop Beasley, but it won't be easy either.

Beasley's sack numbers were way down in 2017. He had just five sacks after a 15½-season in 2016. A big reason for the drop-off was his role in the defense. The Falcons asked Beasley to drop into coverage more often in 2017, but they've gone back to asking him to rush the passer more. He got a sack on the third play of the game against the Rams and is absolutely a threat on Saturday afternoon.

Ben Garland vs. Tim Jernigan
In general, the play of the Eagles' defensive line is going to be huge on Saturday afternoon against the Falcons. Getting to quarterback Matt Ryan and stopping what Doug Pederson called a "two-headed monster" running game is going to fall on the D-line. This is just the matchup inside of the matchup.

The Falcons lost left guard Andy Levitre for the season, so Ben Garland is filling in. Garland is a veteran but has just three starts in his NFL career. Jernigan normally lines up on the left guard, which is important to remember because the Falcons have a great center. Alex Mack is a Pro Bowler so he's tough inside, but Fletcher Cox requires so much attention on the left side of the defensive line. If Mack goes over there to help, that means Jernigan will have 1-on-1s against a backup left guard.

Jernigan has been dealing with an ankle injury for most of the season, but this extended break — he didn't play in the finale either — should help him more than anyone. He'll have a big role on Saturday.

Jay Ajayi vs. Falcons' run D
Unlike his teammates, Ajayi has actually played Atlanta once already this season. On Oct. 15, when he was still in Miami, he helped the Dolphins beat the Falcons 20-17 in Atlanta. Ajayi carried the ball 26 times for 130 yards in that game. In fact, it was his best game of the season as a Dolphin and it's the biggest rushing game the Falcons allowed by any player all season (see story).

Ajayi, who has a long-term chronic knee injury, didn't play in the season finale and got one day off last week, but is now well-rested and ready to go for the playoffs. Last week, he said he was preparing for "war" in the playoffs. That's a good sign.

The most carries Ajayi has had as an Eagle came when he got 15 against the Rams, but look for him to have a big role in Saturday's game. Pederson didn't rule out the possibility of using him as a workhorse back and it might be time for him to do it.

Nick Foles vs. Nick Foles
Foles, to put it simply, needs to play better. He just does. It seems like he has plenty of confidence and it seems like the team has plenty of confidence in him. But Foles just has to play better against the Falcons than he did in the last five quarters he's played in the regular season.

In those five quarters, Foles completed only 46 percent of his passes. He threw two interceptions to one touchdown and had a passer rating of 48.2. That's not going to get it done in the playoffs.

Now, Foles doesn't need to come out and be Carson Wentz. No one really expects him to do that. But he needs to at least be the good version of himself. He needs to play more like the guy who threw four touchdown passes against the Giants. If Foles can do that, the Eagles have a pretty good shot at winning this thing.

The pick-six that 'everyone down Broad Street heard'

The pick-six that 'everyone down Broad Street heard'

Patrick Robinson was talking a little trash with some Eagles teammates before the NFC Championship, so when he came up with an interception, he sort of had to back it up.

“Two hours before the game, I was like, 'When I get a pick, I'm not going out of bounds,'" Robinson said. "When I got it, I was running down the sideline, and I was like, 'No, I definitely can't go out of bounds,' so I just cut it back upfield.”

The end result was a 50-yard return for a touchdown — a play that served to energize the Eagles, the home crowd and an entire fan base during the 38-7 win over the Vikings (see Roob's observations).

“I don't think it just pumped up the offense," Nick Foles said. "I think it pumped up the whole City of Philadelphia. I think everyone down Broad Street heard that.”

Not only did Robinson's pick-six tie the score at seven in the first quarter, it shifted the momentum in the Eagles' favor permanently.

There was an uneasy feeling over Lincoln Financial Field after the Vikings marched straight down the field on a nine-play touchdown drive. A penalty on the ensuing Eagles punt improved Minnesota's field position, while a conversion on third-and-long moved the offense close to midfield. Nothing was going right.

"We had to make a play because they drove right down and scored," Chris Long said. "If we didn't have believe in ourselves and a little toughness, you might've thought, 'Oh, man, it's gonna be a long night.' I know some people probably thought that watching on TV or whatever, but we know what we're capable of as a defense.

“On us, on defense, we had to go out and make a big play and create a turnover.”

Long did exactly that. The 32-year-old pass rusher beat the protection and reached Vikings quarterback Case Keenum mid-throw. The result was a pass that came up woefully short of its intended target — what Robinson described as "an easy pick."

Far less simple was the return. Robinson began by running down the sideline with a convoy of Eagles defenders. Then, with precious little room to maneuver and a promise not to run out of bounds, he cut all the way across to the opposite side of the field, outracing the remaining Vikings players to the pylon.

It was a runback worthy of a certain Eagles All-Pro punt returner.

“Pat, man, he was unbelievable out there," Long said. "He was like Darren Sproles with the ball.”

Robinson was happy to play the part, at one point directing fellow cornerback Ronald Darby to throw a key block that ultimately allowed him to get into the end zone.

“A lot of times you get a pick, there's always one guy that slips through the pack and gets a guy who has the ball," Robinson said. "But this time, all our guys were running hard and trying to make blocks for me.”

For a team that's leaned on home-field advantage all season long, winning nine games in their own building, you better believe that play came at a critical juncture in the contest.

"It got the crowd into it," Malcolm Jenkins said. "Defensively, that first drive, we were kind of uncharacteristic in the run game, missing tackles, just kind of leaky and unsettled. Once we got that, we evened the score back up, it was, 'OK, that was our restart.'

“The crowd is into it. Our offense got going. Defense started getting stops. That was a huge play in the game.”

Doug Pederson's 'tricks up his sleeve' keep coming

Doug Pederson's 'tricks up his sleeve' keep coming

A few hours before the Eagles played the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game Sunday night, the Jaguars doled out a free lesson about being timid in the playoffs.

The Jaguars were clinging to a 14-10 lead when they got the ball back with 55 seconds left in the second quarter, with two timeouts, on their own 25. Head coach Doug Marrone had Blake Bortles take a knee twice, happy to head into the locker room with a slight lead.

You know what eventually happened. The Patriots hung around and came back to win (see story). They'll see the Eagles in the Super Bowl (see Roob's observations).

Watching that scenario unfold, plenty of Eagles fans were probably thinking if the Eagles were in a similar situation, "Doug Pederson would never stay safe like that," and they'd be right. Because the Eagles were faced with a situation like that … and Pederson didn't play it safe.

In the first half of their 38-7 romping over the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game (see breakdown), the Eagles got the ball back with 29 seconds in the first half, when they already had a 21-7 lead. So they marched down the field to kick a 38-yard field goal.

The aggressive Pederson never let his foot off the gas (see report card).

"I just told myself before the game I was going to maintain the aggressiveness in this ballgame," Pederson said. "Listen, it was, a: you win, you keep playing. You lose, you're going home. I didn't want to go home and regret any decision."

Perhaps no play exemplified Pederson's aggressive nature more than the flea flicker early in the third quarter that yielded a 41-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith and put the Eagles up 31-7.

The Eagles had their foot on the Vikings' throats and Pederson gave the signal to step down.

"We love it," said Nick Foles, who admitted he couldn't remember ever running a flea flicker before. "I think he just has such a great feel for the game. He played quarterback and he's coached for a long time. He can feel it."

The flea flicker was a play the Eagles just started practicing and they ran it just a few times during practice this week. Pederson said they used it against the Vikings because they saw opportunities to exploit them down the field. Pederson was dead on.

Rookie Corey Clement was the running back who took the handoff and then pitched the ball back to Foles. After the game, he thanked his position coach Duce Staley for allowing him, a rookie, to be in that situation.

What was Clement thinking when the play got called in?

"S---, I'll do it," Clement said. "You just don't flinch."

After Clement tossed the ball back to Foles, the quarterback unleashed a deep pass to Smith down the sideline. Smith redeemed himself after an earlier drop and hauled it in.

"I didn't know they were going to call it," Smith said. "Coach P has some tricks up his sleeve."

Pederson has had tricks up his sleeve all season. While he hasn't necessarily run gadget plays like the one he pulled out Sunday night, he has been somewhat of a mad scientist when it comes to play-calling. Last week, offensive coordinator Frank Reich described Pederson's play-calling style as "unorthodox."

A week after putting together a gem of a game against the Falcons, Pederson seemingly coached circles around Mike Zimmer and put together a game plan that helped Foles lead his team to the Super Bowl (see story).

One thing is for sure: Pederson is aggressive. And it seems like his entire team feeds off of it.

"I think they do. I hope they do," Pederson said. "Because I've got a lot of trust in them and I think they've got a lot of trust in me that I'm going to make the right decision. It ultimately comes down to the players on the field. But I do believe they feel that. As long as I'm doing it and the decision is right by them and I'm not putting them in a bad situation, then, yeah, I think they feed off of it and start believing in that."