NFL Preview - Atlanta (4-2) at Philadelphia (3-3)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Matt Ryan grew up a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, but
likely checked that fandom at the door this past April, when the Atlanta
Falcons made the Boston College QB the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 Draft.
If the Philadelphia-area native jettisoned his former NFL tastes six months or
so ago, figure on those feelings descending into extreme distaste on Sunday,
when several of his former idols will be, you know, chasing him.
To Ryan's possible consternation, the Eagles have 21 sacks through their first
six games, and only the Pittsburgh Steelers (25) have more.
Philadelphia, in need of a victory that will help it at least keep pace in the
crowded NFC East, can't afford to take it easy on Ryan. The Birds enter Week 8
in last place in the division, two games back of the New York Giants (5-1) but
within closer reach of the Washington Redskins (5-2) and Dallas Cowboys (4-3).
Last time out, the Eagles were 40-26 winners at San Francisco, rebounding from
a 26-17 fourth-quarter deficit to score the road triumph.
The Eagles were unable to pick up any ground on the rest of the division
due to their Week 7 bye, but their inactivity might not be such bad news.
In addition to having an opportunity to get healthier, beginning with running
back Brian Westbrook (broken ribs), Philly has been unstoppable coming off a
bye week in the past decade.
Since Andy Reid took over in 1999, the Eagles are a perfect 9-0 following
their scheduled regular season open date.
Fighting against that sense of history will be the Falcons, who, surprisingly
to most, find themselves in more favorable position than do the Eagles at this
Atlanta (4-2) is just a half-game back of first-place co-occupants Carolina
(5-2) and Tampa Bay (5-2) as Week 8 commences, and has already equaled its win
total posted during last year's 4-12 debacle.
Prior to their own Week 7 bye, the Falcons pulled out a thrilling 22-20 win
over the Chicago Bears.
In his first 300-yard passing day as a pro, Ryan rallied Atlanta after the
Falcons had fallen behind, 20-19, with just 11 seconds to play.
With six seconds on the clock, Ryan managed to throw a letter-perfect, 26-yard
dart to Michael Jenkins on the left sideline, and Jenkins managed to get out
of bounds at the Bears 31 with one second on the clock, in turn setting up a
48-yard field goal from Jason Elam to give the Falcons the victory.
The Eagles hold a 12-10-1 edge in their all-time regular season series with
the Falcons, including a 24-17 home win when the clubs last met, in Week 17 of
the 2006 season. Atlanta won the previous meeting, a 14-10 affair at the
Georgia Dome in a Monday Night matchup to open the 2005 campaign.
In addition to their regular season advantage, the Eagles are 2-1 against the
Falcons in the playoffs. Philadelphia was a 27-10 winner in the 2004 NFC
Championship, defeated the Falcons, 20-6, in a 2002 NFC Divisional Playoff,
and dropped a 14-13 road decision in a 1978 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Including playoffs, the Falcons are 0-4 in Philadelphia since last winning
there in 1988.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid is 5-1 as a head coach against Atlanta, including
the two aforementioned playoff wins. The Falcons' Mike Smith will be meeting
both Reid and the Eagles for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Ryan (1164 passing yards, 5 TD, 3 INT) may not be ready to make a Pro Bowl
appearance in his rookie season, but the fact that he has given the Falcons a
chance to win nearly every week says a lot about his potential for eventual
greatness. The 24-year-old quarterback enters Week 8 with a solid 82.9 passer
rating, and has shown terrific chemistry with No. 1 receiver Roddy White (35
receptions, 3 TD), and to a lesser extent Jenkins (13 receptions, 1 TD). White
posted his third 100-yard game in his past four outings against the Bears, and
Ryan has thrown just one interception over that span. In the backfield,
Michael Turner (597 rushing yards, 6 TD) ranks among league leaders in several
categories, but was held to 54 yards on 25 carries last time out. Jerious
Norwood (280 rushing yards, 1 TD, 12 receptions) is averaging 6.8 yards per
tote as a change-of-pace back. A young Falcons offensive line has surrendered
just seven sacks on the year thus far.
As mentioned, Ryan will need to concern himself most with an Eagles pass rush
that has harassed quarterbacks for much of the year. The Birds dragged down
J.T. O'Sullivan three times in Week 6, with ends Trent Cole (27 tackles, 3
sacks), Juqua Parker (19 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT), and Darren Howard (8
tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) all getting to the 49ers QB. Eleven different
Eagles have at least a half-a-sack already this season. On the back end,
cornerbacks Asante Samuel (14 tackles, 2 INT) and Sheldon Brown (18 tackles)
will be responsible for slowing White and Jenkins, with safeties Brian Dawkins
(32 tackles, 2 sacks) and Quintin Mikell (42 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) lending
support over the top. The Eagles run-stopping group ranks a solid ninth in the
league (91.5 yards per game), with linebackers Stewart Bradley (42 tackles, 1
sack) and Omar Gaither (35 tackles, 1.5 sacks) ranking among team leaders in
stops and Mike Patterson (18 tackles) and Brodrick Bunkley (14 tackles, 1
sack) quietly doing a good job at the point of attack.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Clearly, the Eagles are a different offensive team when Westbrook (194 rushing
yards, 14 receptions, 6 TD) is both in the lineup and healthy. Westbrook has
been limited to just 17 carries over his past four games due to ankle and rib
problems, totaling only 45 yards and one touchdown over that span, but is
expected to be fresh and ready to go following the bye week. His presence
should help open things up for quarterback Donovan McNabb (1576 passing yards,
8 TD, 3 INT) and the passing game, which managed 280 yards and a pair of
touchdowns against the 49ers last time out. Rookie DeSean Jackson (29
receptions, 2 TD) continued his sensational first year with six catches for 98
yards, and Hank Baskett (17 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end L.J. Smith (10
receptions, 2 TD) both caught touchdowns in the victory. The Eagles line has
surrendered just 10 sacks on the year, but won't have the services of Pro Bowl
guard Shawn Andrews (back surgery) for the next six weeks. Not to be
forgotten for the Philly offense is backup running back Correll Buckhalter
(207 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 3 TD), who should see some major minutes
on Sunday after totaling 178 total yards on a mere 25 touches in San
The Falcons have shown some defensive warts against both the pass and run,
ranking just 26th in NFL passing defense (231.7 yards per game) and 20th
versus the run (118 yards per game). The soft spot in the secondary is at
cornerback, where Chris Houston (16 tackles, 1 INT) and Brent Grimes (31
tackles, 1 INT) both lack experience. The pass rush has been paced by John
Abraham (17 tackles), who has posted seven of the Falcons' 10 sacks but has
totaled just one in his past three games. Rookie Jamaal Anderson (16 tackles),
the team's first-round Draft pick in 2007, notched his first career sack
against Chicago. The Atlanta front seven limited the Bears running game to
just 79 yards in Week 6, with linebackers Keith Brooking (36 tackles) and
Curtis Lofton (39 tackles) combining for 13 stops to fuel the effort. Tackle
Jonathan Babineaux (17 tackles, 1 sack) has been productive on the interior
Despite his 300-yard passing day last time out, Ryan is not a first-rate
option against an Eagles team that pressures the quarterback and has the
ability to accrue turnovers. Turner and White figure to get some numbers, and
are better starting options. Stay away from the Atlanta defense, but give the
nod to kicker Jason Elam, who has missed just one field goal all year.
McNabb and Westbrook are always solid fantasy plays, and the rookie Jackson
should also get a long look this week against an inexperienced Falcons
secondary. A playmaking Eagles defense is also a good choice, but steer clear
of kicker David Akers, who appears to be on a steady decline.
This is the kind of game the Eagles can't afford to lose. Home games against
rookie quarterbacks don't present themselves all that often, and if
Philadelphia fails to take advantage, it will be a major black mark against
the team's potential to re-join the NFC East race. At the moment, the Eagles
are more talented on both sides of the football, and that helps, but the
Falcons aren't going to be punchless here either. The maturation of Ryan is
only going to help open things up for Turner and the running game, and the
Falcons should be able to stay in the contest with some big plays. Ultimately,
however, Atlanta will be done in by the play of a defense that lacks the
horses to consistently stall the Philadelphia attack.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 27, Falcons 19
10/23 16:18:07 ET
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