All four of the Divisional Round matchups feature established quarterbacks building or polishing Hall of Fame resumes versus question marks on the opposing sideline. Robbed of a Carson Wentz-Matt Ryan clash, this matchup of field generals might just be the most lopsided of the weekend.
The third-highest rated postseason passer of all time, Ryan has posted a gaudy 70.7 completion percentage, 10.1 yards per attempt, 16:3 TD-to-INT ratio and 119.1 rating over his last six playoff games. Nick Foles‘ 2017 numbers in relief of Wentz, on the other hand, rank last in completion percentage (54.0), yards per attempt (5.0) and passer rating (77.7) among the 12 postseason quarterbacks.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, football is the quintessential team sport. Stout in the trenches — where most games are ultimately swung — Doug Pederson’s team was the NFL’s best all-around outfit for the first three months of the season. Now viewed as underdogs despite earning the conference’s top seed, the Eagles are about to find out if a robust ground attack, a punishing defense and home-field advantage can compensate for a liability at American sports’ most glaringly important position.
Players to Watch
Nick Foles, QB, Eagles
Considering the scope of football evolution, it’s rare to witness first-hand the decline of an endangered species. Over the past half-decade, however, the NFL has seen deliberate, slow-twitch pocket passers virtually disappear from the landscape. Lacking rare processing speed and the hard-earned experience that brings pre-snap mastery to the likes of Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, slow-motion stationary signal-callers such as Brandon Weeden, Zach Mettenberger, Mike Glennon, Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage have faceplanted at a time when freakishly athletic pass rushers are dominating underdeveloped offensive linemen as never before.
The one trait that every great quarterback possesses, QB guru Trent Dilfer has discovered through years of study, is the knack for creating space and somehow extending the play when the defense wins the down. It’s no secret that’s where Wentz excels and Foles fails. Whereas Wentz was the most effective third-down weapon in football through 14 MVP-caliber weeks, Foles is just one of 17 in those situations over his last two starts which have generated a 46.9 completion percentage, 4.1 yards per attempt and a 48.2 passer rating over 51 dropbacks.
While it’s certainly not fated that Foles will stumble in his bid for a first career playoff victory, his spotty play down the stretch has earned the spotlight versus the surging opposition party.
Deion Jones, LB, Falcons
A Falcons defense that has lacked impact players and backbone throughout the Matt Ryan-Thomas Dimitroff era of the past decade suddenly features headliners in Jones, disruptive defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, sticky cornerback Desmond Trufant and bone-jarring safety Keanu Neal. If you look close enough, you can see similarities to Dan Quinn’s Seattle defenses starring Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. Jones is at the center of it all in the Bobby Wagner role, flashing the dynamic athleticism and closing speed that has become the hallmark of an improving Falcons defense.
Emerging as the NFL’s premier coverage linebacker, Jones salvaged Atlanta’s playoff hopes in a crucial Week 16 showdown with the Saints, pulling off a spectacular leaping interception of Drew Brees with the game on the line. When we last saw Jones, he was shadowing Rams wideout Sammy Watkins in the end zone, deflecting a potentially pivotal touchdown late in the fourth quarter of last week’s upset victory.
While the offense has certainly missed Kyle Shanahan’s magic touch, Marquand Manuel’s defense is unrecognizable from last season’s epic Super Bowl collapse. Led by Jones, this increasingly stingy unit is allowing 56 fewer yards and six fewer points per game than the 2016 edition. Over the past eight weeks, Quinn and Manuel are overseeing a swarming, top-five buzzsaw.
In this week’s episode of the new NFL Films Podcast, venerable analyst Greg Cosell passed along a belief in league circles that Shanahan used smoke and mirrors to cover up for a relatively weak blocking unit in last season’s high-octane attack. That offensive line has taken a step back this year, as evidenced by Aaron Donald‘s utter evisceration of the overmatched guards in last week’s wild-card matchup.
Even with the menacing Donald in the rear-view mirror, there’s no rest for the weary. Three-time Pro Bowl DT Fletcher Cox, capable of pulling off a convincing Donald impersonation of his own, leads a stonewalling defensive line that might just stand as the league’s dominant position group. The Eagles not only finished atop the run defense list (79.2 yards per game), but also ranked in the top five in points per game (18.4), total defense (306.5), third-down percentage (32.2) and takeaways (31). This matchup is tilted heavily in the favor of Philadelphia’s deep, talented front seven.
Having won seven of their last nine games, the Falcons boast a momentum edge as well as a decided advantage under center. Those strengths are counterbalanced by coaching and matchup issues, as evidenced by last year’s decisive outcome in which a lesser version of the current Eagles became the lone team to hold Atlanta’s explosive offense under 20 points. Will a Falcons outfit that has struggled to match the consistency and potency of last year’s attack fare any better this time around? We have our doubts.