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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 stage.
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 Francisco.
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 line.
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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