Eagles – Falcons: The 3 Matchups to Watch
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The last two NFC participants in the Super Bowl kick off the NFL season in Philadelphia on Thursday when the Eagles host the talented Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons arguably gave Philadelphia its toughest test in the playoffs last season en route to the Eagles' Super Bowl LII championship, losing at Lincoln Financial Field 15-10 in the divisional round when Matt Ryan's desperation fourth-down throw to Julio Jones in the end zone late in the game came up empty.
Both teams look like significant contenders again and there are the three matchups that could turn the game on Thursday night:
-Falcons edge rushers Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley Jr. vs. Eagles left tackle Jason Peters: The 36-year-old Peters is coming off ACL surgery last October and the Eagles have been very cautious with him over the summer in an attempt to have him healthy as possible for the regular season. Peters didn't play at all in the preseason and his backup, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, struggling mightily. Going from zero to 60-or-70 plays on a hot, humid day could be asking a lot of Peters. The good news is that the heat wave that has settled over Philadelphia is scheduled to break during the game so that could help. The lack of a consistent pass rush has been the major issue with Atlanta in the past and the team has scaled back the coverage responsibilities of Beasley in order to get him back on track as a rusher. The former first-round pick led the NFL in QB takedowns with 15 1/2 in 2016 and dropped off a table to five last season. Beasley typically lines up on the other side but with All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson there for the Eagles, Dan Quinn could start looking for matchups. Either way, Peters will see McKinley, another former first-rounder, more. McKinley is undersized and perhaps the best way to attack him is by running right at him and with the screen game.
-Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Eagles' CB's Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby: Jones is the top receiver in football not named Antonio Brown and creates matchup problems for everyone because of his immense size and strength. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Jones is kind of like a high-level NBA scorer, you know he's going to put up production so the goal is to make him work as hard as possible when the important fourth-down play does come so he's not fresh enough to beat you.
-Eagles DC Jim Schwartz vs. Falcons OC Steve Sarkisian: This might be the biggest mismatch on paper as one of the game's top defensive coordinators matches wits with the former Southern Cal coach who tried to keep the good times rolling in Atlanta after Kyle Shanahan left for the head-coaching job but had a difficult time pulling up the right plays last season. The Falcons are in the conversation for having the best skill-position talent in the game with a former MVP at quarterback in Ryan, three immensely talented receivers in Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and rookie first-round pick Calvin Ridley, as well as two excellent backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Week 1 could end up being Schwartz's toughest test all year.
973espn.com Prediction: Falcons 21, Eagles 17
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen