FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – After their victory over the Rams in the first-round of the playoffs, the Falcons are now favored on the road against the Eagles in the divisional round. Make no mistake, though, Philadelphia is still a very good team.
While they will not have star quarterback Carson Wentz, the Eagles have a stout defense led by a dominant offensive line and a strong running game to rely upon. Philadelphia beat Atlanta last season by controlling the pace and flow of the game and dominating time of possession. The Eagles can repeat the formula on Saturday.
Let's dive into this week's key matchup.
KEY MATCHUP: Falcons' offensive line vs. Eagles' defensive line
Much of the Eagles' defensive success begins with their front four. Led by Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, the Eagles have a defensive line that is among the best in the NFL.
The Falcons have faced some impressive defensive fronts this year, including Carolina, Los Angeles and Minnesota, so they should be prepared for the challenge. That doesn't lessen the difficulty of said challenge, however.
The Eagles' defense was the league's best against the run, allowing just 79.2 yards per game. They are an excellent third-down defense, holding opposing offenses to a 32.2 percent conversion rate – the third-best mark in the NFL. Those are small indicators of how good Philadelphia's defensive line is as a group, but the whole is comprised of some pretty talented individual pieces.
Graham leads the unit with 47 tackles and 9.5 sacks. His fellow defensive end, Vinny Curry, has 42 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, 18 quarterback hits and three sacks. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan has 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks, while Cox has 26 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits.
Atlanta did a good enough job containing the Rams' destructive front four, but quarterback Matt Ryan was also forced to make some exceptional plays while under heavy pressure. The Eagles aren't as dominant a pass-rushing group – they had 38 sacks on the season – but they are much better against the run.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said he believes this matchup will come down to the play in the trenches, and that is definitely a battle worth watching.
"This is a definite line of scrimmage kind of day," Quinn said. "Both teams like to run it, and both teams are good defending the run. First thing like always, you can see the discipline of the way that the players are playing. They have a real understanding of the scheme, and for a long time I've felt the way they feature the guys in the system really lends to playing really good run defense."
Five more things to know about Falcons-Eagles 1. Ajayi was only back to surpass 100 rushing yards vs. Falcons
In the regular season, only Jay Ajayi gained more than 100 rushing yards against the Falcons. He did so as a member of the Miami Dolphins, gaining 130 yards on 26 attempts in Week 6. Now, the Falcons will get an opportunity to face Ajayi once again, and their run defense has improved greatly since their first meeting.
"In that game, I thought there's a number of things that make [Jay] Ajayi so unique," Quinn said. "One is his ability to make people miss. Sometimes you may have the right leverage, and he has the ability to spin and get outside of contact. As tacklers, it's about leverage and maintaining and owning that leverage. When you lose that, that's oftentimes when the big play happens. In other words, if you were the running back and I was coming and had to really maintain my leverage, I jumped out of that spot and you were able to break, now a 10 to 15-yard run happens. And you could say, 'Well, how did that [happen]? Why'd you lose your leverage, or how did that take place?'
"Sometimes it's a player who can have such good change of direction, they can make you miss. And in that case, that happened a few times in that game. There were other occasions where maybe we weren't as detailed as we needed to be in our gap control, and we've worked really hard at that part to make sure there's no free access both in the run game and the pass game. But he's certainly a player that has our respect as a defense." 2. Intriguing matchup in the slot
Pro Football Focus shed some light on what could be an interesting matchup between Falcons cornerback Brian Poole and Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor. Per PFF, Poole gave up a reception per every seven coverage snaps from the slot cornerback position, which was the second-highest rate among all starting slot corners this season. Agholor, meanwhile, gained 752 yards while operating out of the slot – the third-most yards in the NFL.
Poole's open-field tackling against the Rams played a large part in the Falcons' defensive success, and he again appears to have a tough challenge ahead. 3. Ryan was great under pressure against the Rams
If the Eagles manage to get pressure on Matt Ryan, he was proven he can succeed in those situations. While constantly under duress against the Rams, Ryan put together one of his best performances of the season. He's on a run of great postseason games, and Ryan definitely continued that trend against the Rams.
4. Julio on a great run against the Eagles
Julio Jones is in the midst of a great string of games against Philadelphia. In each of his last three games against the Eagles, Jones has surpassed over 100 receiving yards, and he's scored three times in that span.
In the Falcons' three games against the Eagles since 2012, Jones averaged eight catches for 133 yards and a touchdown. The Falcons could use another big game from their No. 1 receiver on Saturday, and Jones has balled out against the Eagles for much of his career. 5. Eagles lead all-time series, but it's close
The Falcons and Eagles have played each other 33 times in their history, with Philadelphia holding an 18-14-1 lead in the series. Atlanta is 3-1 over the last four meetings, but Philly has largely dominated since 2000, going 9-4 in that time.
These two teams have met three times in the playoff. Most recently, the Eagles beat the Falcons 27-10 in the NFC Championship Game in 2005. The Falcons won the first playoff matchup between these two teams, 14-13, and they are 1-2 all-time in the postseason against the Eagles.