Eagles-Falcons divisional round predictions

Eagles-Falcons divisional round predictions

Playoff football is back in Philadelphia.

And just like last time, Nick Foles is under center.

If the top-seeded Eagles want to make a run at the Super Bowl, it will be with Foles leading the way after he served as backup to Carson Wentz until Week 15.

Saturday marks the Eagles' first postseason game since 2013, when Foles was the starter and the team bowed out in the wild-card round to the Saints.

With a bye this season, the Eagles welcome the Falcons to Lincoln Financial Field for a divisional round matchup (4:35 p.m. on NBC).

Can the Eagles still make this season special? Or was Wentz's ACL injury the true beginning of the end?

Our experts provide their Eagles-Falcons predictions:

Reuben Frank (14-2)
It's not about who has the best quarterback. It's about who has the best team. And I believe in the Eagles' defense, I believe in their running game, I believe in their special teams, I believe in their ability to win close games at home in the final minutes. The Eagles' defense has allowed 11 touchdowns all year at the Linc. Four of those came on a short field, when the other team had to drive 55 yards or less, or just past midfield. Of the seven remaining drives, two came with the Eagles up 30 or more points late in a blowout win with a lot of subs in the game.

That means opposing offenses had five drives all year in which they drove more than 55 yards against the Eagles' starting defense. That's impressive. If it was Matt Ryan vs. Foles, I'd pick the Falcons. But it's a team game, and I think the Eagles win this thing and get to the NFC Championship Game.

So we'll go Eagles. I feel good about this one.

Eagles 23, Falcons 17

Dave Zangaro (13-3)
Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe I should just look at the last five quarters and think it's a no-brainer. Of course the Eagles aren't going to win with Foles at quarterback. 

But every time I think this team is dead, it comes back to life. Every time it suffered a serious injury, it somehow found a way to keep things going. Losing Wentz was monumental. There's no way around it. And if he was playing in this game, the Eagles would probably be seven-point favorites. 

I just think they find a way to get it done. This Falcons team isn't the same squad that went to the Super Bowl last year. This team can't seem to score at the same rate, so I think the Eagles' defense, playing at home, will be able to win. And Foles will do just enough. 

I think there's an NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia next week. 

Eagles 20, Falcons 17

Derrick Gunn (13-3)
The defending NFC champion Falcons backed their way into the playoffs, and then last weekend made an impressive postseason showing on the road against the Rams. But this isn't the high-powered Falcons offense that averaged 33 points per game in 2016. In 2017, with basically the same personnel, it struggled to average 22 points. But the difference this season, the Falcons' defense has played better. The team's front seven is on the small side, but fast. The secondary is aggressive and well versed in man-to-man coverage. 

The jury is split on Foles and whether or not he can handle the postseason pressure. The Falcons' D is not stout against the run. The Eagles have the necessary stable of backfield horses and need to establish a ground game early and stick to it. Go north and south against the Falcons, not lateral, which plays to their defensive speed. Doug Pederson needs to shorten up the passing game to keep the heat off Foles. Jim Schwartz's guys up front have to get to Ryan to make him as uncomfortable as possible and keep Ryan from finding Julio Jones.

When the Falcons have scored 20 or more points this season, they're 11-0 (including the playoff win over the Rams). When they've been held to 17 points or less, they're 0-6. The Linc will be rocking. The Eagles feel disrespected that they're the underdogs. This should be a knock-down, drag-out brawl. When the dust settles, look for the Eagles to still be standing.

Eagles 23, Falcons 17

Ray Didinger (14-2)
Given the choice a week ago, most Eagles fans would have preferred to face Atlanta in the divisional playoff. Now that it has turned out that way, many of the same fans are hiding under their beds at the prospect of playing the Falcons. It's this weird pathology that has taken over the city since the injury to Wentz. People just don't think this team with Foles is equipped to beat anybody. OK, maybe the Cleveland Browns.

No one is going to say it will be easy because it won't be. The Eagles are clearly a different team with Foles. They are not as explosive, not even close. With Wentz, when it was third down, it didn't matter if it was 3rd-and-2 or 3rd-and-15, he could make the play and move the sticks. That's no longer the case. Now a sack, a false start, a holding penalty, any negative play is a likely drive-killer. So the Eagles can't afford to make those mistakes.

It is a pretty simple formula: The Eagles have to run the ball effectively, win the turnover battle, pressure Ryan (yes, we're looking at you Fletcher Cox), make a big play or two on special teams, all of which will expand Foles' comfort zone. No one expects him to throw for 400 yards. Just when, say, Zach Ertz is open on a seam route, hit him with the pass, don't sail it over his head.

The Falcons are the defending NFC champs and they are peaking at the right time, but I don't see the Eagles' season ending this quickly.

Eagles 20, Falcons 16

Andrew Kulp (13-3)
The more I talked to players, the more I got the sense Pederson was holding back the last two weeks of the regular season. And the more I felt the dialed-back practices and game plans were largely responsible for poor offensive performances in the Eagles' last game and a quarter, the more comfortable I felt about Foles moving forward.

We all know Foles has his limitations, and he's prone to playing very poorly. He also has the ability to play exceptionally well, or at least OK. I'm not worried about him. He'll be fine.

Where the game might really be won or lost is on the other side of the ball, at the line of scrimmage. The interior of the Falcons' offensive line is a mess right now, specifically the guards. Cox and Tim Jernigan should be able to do some damage. If the Eagles' defense can stop the run and get to Ryan, I don't think Atlanta's offense has this in it.

Eagles 20, Falcons 16

Corey Seidman (11-4) 
My brain tells me the Falcons will win, but years of watching football, years of watching teams who feel truly disrespected and years of seeing the most likely scenario not occur has me leaning Eagles.

Jones is unbelievable but there have been plenty of times this season he didn't swing the game. He scored in only two of 16 regular-season games and reached 100 yards four times.

I trust the Eagles' run defense to hold Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in check, though I do expect Freeman to have a big game receiving — Texas routes, screens, etc.

But at the end of the day, the Eagles' defense is good enough to hold the Falcons to 17 or fewer points, especially in an outdoor stadium.

Eagles 20, Falcons 17

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."