The Eagles were always going to be playoff underdogs, but Atlanta matchup is far from hopeless

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson meets Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan after the Eagles beat the Falcons on Sunday, November 13, 2016 in Philadelphia.

Typically, opening as a 2 1/2-point home underdog in the divisional round of the playoffs, despite being the conference’s top seed, does not evoke widespread frolicking and jubilation along the hedgerows and garden paths of your average NFL village.

But the Eagles’ situation is atypical.

With Carson Wentz on crutches and Nick Foles’ shaky hand grasping the controls of what had been the league’s most prolific offense, Eagles fans entered the wild-card weekend searching for a shred of hope, a glimmer of light amid winter’s dark chill. And late on a bitter-cold Saturday evening, the universe gave them one: the Atlanta Falcons’ 26-13 upset victory over the host Los Angeles Rams.

In winning, the defending NFC champs did not look unbeatable. Formidable, to be sure — especially their sure-tackling defense — but way, way short of unbeatable. In fact, the first-half Falcons were kind of a mess offensively, and managed to forge a 13-10 lead only because the Rams kept coughing up the ball. Early on, Falcons-Rams looked a little like that dreadful Week 17 Cowboys-Eagles game. You probably had no trouble believing Atlanta was the conference’s sixth seed. Or that the Saints would have been a tougher Eagles matchup, had the Rams held serve.

The second half, the Falcons looked better. Julio Jones caught an actual red-zone touchdown pass, something the conference’s most dominant receiver rarely manages to do. Penn Charter’s Matt Ryan lofted the TD ball over the outstretched fingertips of our old friend Connor Barwin. Barwin said by text Sunday that he wished he “woulda jumped.”

Camera icon KELVIN KUO / AP
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, middle, is sacked by Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Connor Barwin, left, and nose tackle Michael Brockers during the first half of an NFL football wild-card playoff game, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, in Los Angeles.


What must the Eagles do to beat the Falcons?

The Falcons’ defense really took charge at key points. It looms as a huge obstacle between the Eagles and the NFC title game. Still, though the Rams mustered just 13 points, and threw for only 259 yards on a whopping 45 attempts, completing 24 of them, they ran for 115 yards (on just 16 carries, 7.2 yards per carry). Foles’ task does not seem impossible, particularly given the strength of the Eagles’ running game.

In the regular season, Atlanta was the league’s ninth-best run defense, giving up 104.1 yards per game. The Falcons’ average of 4.1 yards per carry against tied them for 16th. In Week 6, they lost to Miami, largely because they gave up 130 rushing yards on 26 carries to Jay Ajayi, who is now an Eagle. That was the highest individual rushing total of the season by an Atlanta opponent.

Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, asked his thoughts about the Atlanta defense Sunday, texted that “they have been really good against the run the last half of the season,” and overall, “they have good balance,” with a “really good” Pro Bowl d-tackle in Dontari Poe.

Johnson ought to be matched up against Vic Beasley, the Falcons’ top pass rusher, who led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in 2016 but was slowed by a hamstring problem this season. Beasley managed just five sacks, of the team’s 39, one more than the Eagles totaled.

Much will be made this week of the Eagles’ 24-15 victory over the Falcons back on Nov. 13, 2016. Probably too much, in that both teams are very different, and it was 14 months ago. But the Eagles did run for 208 yards on 38 carries, and Darren Sproles caught eight passes, for 57 yards. There was lots of room underneath for Sproles and tight end Zach Ertz, who caught six passes, on seven targets, for 55 yards.

Ryan, who is 3-3 lifetime against the Eagles, 1-3 at the Linc, completed 18 of 33 passes for 267 yards, a 76-yard touchdown to Taylor Gabriel, and an interception, with the Eagles playing more Cover 2 than usual. The Gabriel catch was the only TD the Falcons scored; they managed only 11 first downs and 303 total yards, going 2-for-11 converting third downs.

Saturday, Ryan was 21 for 30 for 218 yards. Nine of the catches for 94 of the yards went to Jones. Ryan was sacked three times. The Falcons rushed for 124 yards, but on 39 carries – 3.2 yards per carry.

Ryan’s most recent win over the Eagles came in Atlanta in the 2015 opener, 26-24,  a game in which he completed 23 of 34 passes for 298 yards, two touchdowns, and two picks. His only win at the Linc came in 2012, the year the Eagles were 4-12, when Ryan and the Falcons won 30-17, Ryan 22 of 29 for 262, no picks, three touchdowns.