McMullen: Eagles’ Margin of Error is Smaller but Still Exists
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Time can do some funny things to the mind and the atrophy of a bye week has been playing tricks on many in the Delaware Valley, who have convinced themselves a team that has lost three times -- twice when it was actually trying -- has no chance against the Atlanta Falcons is the divisional round of the playoffs.
Most of the concern for the Eagles, of course, stems from the loss of second-team All-Pro quarterback Carson Wentz in Week 14 to a torn ACL, something that turned Philadelphia from a projected six- to seven-point favorite against the sixth-seeded Falcons into a 2 1/2-point underdog, a startling shift that reflects both Wentz's value and the poor play of Nick Foles down the stretch.
Foles had admittedly looked awful over his past two appearances in obscenely cold weather at Lincoln Financial Field, a fact mitigated by the upcoming forecast which has temperatures reaching into the 50s with some rain by the weekend.
No variable is going to turn Foles into the Falcons' Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, who led Atlanta to Super Bowl LI as well as a 26-13 upset win over the high-powered Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night.
Ryan, the Exton native who attended Penn Charter, now has the second-highest postseason passer rating in league history behind Hall of Famer Kurt Warner.
A competent Foles, however, turns this game on its head because the Eagles enter with the better supporting cast.
The explosive Falcons of 2016, the league's highest scoring outfit with now-49ers coach Kyle Shanahan calling the plays, have turned into an inconsistent unit with former Southern Cal coach Steve Sarkisian directing things.
On the other side of the football, Atlanta is athletic but prone to wear down best evidenced by the largest Super Bowl collapse in history.
The Falcons' style of defense -- the famed Seattle Cover-3 -- could also help Foles in a weird way because it's designed to take away big plays and tries to prevent offenses from making big plays outside the numbers.
The theory behind the strategy is that an offense is eventually going to make a mistake over a long drive, be it via penalty or a negative play that puts it behind the sticks which makes it possible to get more aggressive on third downs.
Those who've paid attention to Foles' struggles on the game's most-important down may chuckle at that being an advantage but again the wind chills aren't going to be in the teens and Foles' strength isn't pushing the football outside the numbers in the best of circumstances.
That makes playing a clean came and dominating with the running game paramount for Doug Pederson and the Eagles.
During the regular season, the Falcons' had the league’s No. 9-ranked rush defense, allowing 104.1 yards per game but its efficacy when measuring yards-per-carry is middle of the pack at 16th overall.
Deion Jones is Atlanta's Mike linebacker, almost the prototypical modern-era, three-down 'backer, widely athletic to help in coverage but also undersized and prone to getting caught in the wash if the Eagles' interior offensive linemen can get to the second level, easier said than done with the Falcons' big bodies at defensive tackle: Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe.
It's been done, though, with perhaps the best example of that coming in Week 6 against Miami when Jay Ajayi gashed the Falcons for 130 yards on 26 carries.
Pederson has seemed to be preparing Ajayi, who was picked up by the Eagles as the trade deadline, for a larger role in the postseason, resting the running back in Week 17 and giving him a load-management day last week to help with his chronic knee pain.
As predicted when Wentz went down, the Eagles' margin of error has gotten dramatically smaller but that margin still exists, especially in South Philadelphia.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen