Career assists for Flyers captain Claude Giroux

Eagles-Falcons: It’s not all about Foles

Posted by Eric Fisher On January 11

Quarterback Nick Foles has been the center of attention since Carson Wentz was lost for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, but the Eagles’ hopes of advancing Saturday (4:35 p.m.) against the Falcons shouldn’t rest of Foles’ shoulders.

The Eagles have All-Pro players on the offensive and defensive line They have two veteran running backs who were brought to the Eagles for situations such as this one. If Saturday’s game comes down to Foles’ performance, it means the rest of the team didn’t do its job.

Playing the game at Lincoln Financial Field should be an advantage for the Eagles, if only because the Falcons appear more comfortable inside their dome. Temperatures are expected to start out in the 50s early Saturday morning, but then they’re expected to plummet in the afternoon and evening. The colder weather may not be an advantage for the Eagles, but playing at The Linc at least prevents the Falcons from having their homefield advantage in a dome.

The Eagles (13-3) certainly don’t have an easy task in front of them. The Falcons, runners-up last season, have seven wins in their last nine games and seem to be playing their best football of the season.

Here are 10 questions to consider prior to and during Saturday’s game.

Why is Saturday’s game important for the Eagles?

We always start with the importance question. This week the answer is obvious. The Eagles haven’t won a playoff since the 2008 season. An opening-round loss at home after a 13-3 season would be take away some of the good feeling surrounding this team.

What is the key for the Eagles?

The offensive line. If the Eagles can run the ball, it will take a lot of the pressure off of Nick Foles. Right tackle Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce were named first-team All-Pro. Johnson and right guard Brandon Brooks were selected for the Pro Bowl. This is the week for the offensive line to validate its award-winning season.

What’s another key for the Eagles?

The defensive line. If the Eagles can contain the Falcons’ running game, particularly on first down, they can get pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan on second-and-long and third-and-long. Defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan could have a huge impact on the Eagles’ chances for victory, especially with guard considered to be the weakest spot on the Falcons’ offensive line.

Why is Las Vegas disrespecting the Eagles by making the Falcons the favorites?

The people setting the betting lines aren’t disrespecting the Eagles. Their job is to set a line that gets half the people to bet on one side and half to be on the other side. Apparently, they did a good job by making the Falcons 2½-point favorites because the line has only moved a half-point – in the Falcons’ direction.

Didn’t the Falcons have a disappointing season?

The Falcons, coming off an epic Super Bowl collapse, had a disappointing first half of the season. Their second half has been pretty darn good. After a 4-4 first half, the Falcons went 6-2 during the second half of the season, including wins over the Cowboys, Seahawks, Saints and Panthers. Their two losses during the second half of the season came against the Vikings and Saints, the teams in the other NFC playoff game this weekend. The Falcons continued their roll last Saturday with a 26-13 victory over the NFC West-champion Rams in the wild card round.

Who is the key player for the Falcons?

Quarterback Matt Ryan is the key for the Falcons. Although the Penn Charter High School graduate didn’t approach his 2016 numbers, when he was named the NFL MVP, Ryan still had a pretty good season. He completed 64.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 4,095 yards this season. Ryan gives the Falcons a distinct advantage at starting quarterback.

Who are Ryan’s top targets?

Wide receiver Julio Jones led the Falcons with 88 receptions for 1,444 yards and three touchdowns, and then added nine catches for 94 yards and a touchdown against the Rams in the Falcons’ playoff opener. But Jones isn’t a one-man show. Receiver Mohamed Sanu has 67 catches this season for 703 yards and five touchdowns, and tight end Austin Hooper caught 49 passes for 526 yards and three touchdowns. And that’s not all. Running backs Devonate Freeman (36 for 317 receiving yards) and Tevin Coleman (27 for 299) are also receiving threats out of the backfield.

Who is the most dangerous Falcon with whom many people may not be familiar?

Middle linebacker Deion Jones had 10 tackles, seven of them solo, against the Rams last Saturday as the Falcons defense did a nice job containing MVP candidate Todd Gurley. The Eagles’ interior line may have its hands full with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and Dantari Poe, allowing Jones to roam free. Jones is one of the keys to short-circuiting the Eagles’ running game, which would put more pressure on Nick Foles. Jones is also terrific in pass coverage.

Have we waited long enough to evaluate the Foles factor?

The elephant in the room during this preview has been Nick Foles. He may not be as productive as he was against the Giants in his first start after Carson Wentz’s season-ending ACL injury, but he shouldn’t be as bad as he looked against the Raiders and, in limited action, against the Cowboys in the Eagles’ last two regular-season games. Foles can’t win a game by  keeping plays alive with his legs, as Wentz did this season, in order to make big plays, but he’s not a tackling dummy, either. If the running game can keep the Eagles out of obvious passing downs, Foles should be fine.

Who is going to be the Eagles’ lead running back?

Unless head coach Doug Pederson is running a wonderful misdirection play, Jay Ajayi is going to be the featured running back. Ajayi is the only running back to gain 100 yards against the Falcons this season, having done so with the Dolphins before being acquired in a trade by the Eagles. But Ajayi has had a difficulty with ball security, both while receiving passes and while running with the football. One thing the Eagles can’t afford is turnovers. LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement are waiting in the wings if Ajayi falters.

Prediction: I’ve been going back and forth on this game all week. I truly believe the Eagles have the formula and personnel for beating the Falcons. They can control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, putting the Falcons in second-and-long and third-and-long while keeping the pressure off of Nick Foles by establishing the running game. But having the game plan and executing it are two different things. The Eagles haven’t played a complete game, with the offense and defense playing well at the same time, since November. The Falcons don’t have an explosive offensive, as they did last year, but veteran Matt Bryant is incredibly consistent and reliable. Perhaps Bryant makes all his field goals while Jake Elliott misses a mid-range field goal. That could be the difference. Prediction: Falcons 19, Eagles 17.

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Side angle of Cody Parkey's missed field goal