DirtyBird Forecast: Episode 1: Falcons make statement on opening night

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Falcons vs. Eagles

Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA

September 6th, 2018

Atlanta has been blessed with the opportunity to face off with the defending Super Bowl champions in the NFL’s annual Thursday Night kickoff game. The opponent will be a familiar foe, as the Eagles defeated the Falcons 15-10 in the Divisional round on the exact same field eight months ago. By season’s end, you can expect both of these teams to be competing for a Super Bowl once again, but September 6th is going to belong to the Falcons.

Now, you can make this matchup about some sort of revenge factor that will lift Atlanta on the road against a superior team. But not only does that usually play less of a factor than people expect, à la the Patriots drubbing of Atlanta last season in New England, it has little to do with why the Falcons will walk away victorious. Atlanta is going to take care of business because they are a more complete team heading into week one.

The Eagles, fresh off their franchise’s first Super Bowl, come into 2018 a lot less healthy than they would like. It starts with their QB situation. Doug Pederson finally announced Nick Foles as the starter for week one. Despite Pederson’s best Bill Belichick impersonation, it would have been wild to see Wentz come out and take the first snap of the season. Nick Foles will be under center once again, which should bode well for the visiting side.

Yes, I am aware the great Nick Foles was able to lead the Eagles to a championship, but he is far less threatening than Wentz. For the majority of his career, Foles has been lackluster. He has finished with a completion percentage over 61% just once as a starter. And against the Falcons in the Divisional round, he went 23-30 for 246 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. A performance that was far from spectacular and set up by Philadelphia’s ability to pound the rock.

Wentz is not the only key piece that will miss the game either. Timmy Jernigan is highly unlikely to play, which will be a blow to the Eagles interior defensive line that dominated the Falcons a year ago. Although, if there is one place Philadelphia can afford to lose someone it is across the defensive line. They have by far the deepest front in the NFL with backups that would start on most teams.

The Eagles biggest receiving threat will also be absent for the week one matchup. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported last week that Alshon Jeffery would miss at least the first two games of the season. That is a huge blow to Foles and the Eagles, as Jeffery is far-and-away Philadelphia’s best receiver. They will be facing one of the league’s premier secondaries missing their starting quarterback and top wide receiver. That is not a recipe for success.

On the other hand, Atlanta enters this game much healthier than they did eight months ago. Most importantly, Andy Levitre will be in the lineup after missing the end of last season with a triceps injury. While newly signed Brandon Fusco will start at the opposite guard spot. The Eagles were able to bully the Falcons at the point of attack in the last matchup, that will be much harder to do this time around.

The Falcons benefit from two of their star players entering the game without any nagging injuries as well. Julio Jones was bothered by ankle issues for the entirety of last season. His health will boost an already fantastic receiving core that added Calvin Ridley this offseason. Devonta Freeman is also 100% healthy after nursing a knee injury through the majority of last season. With Steve Sarkisian entering his second year as the play-caller, expectations are as high as they have been in a while for this Falcons offense.

If Philadelphia is going to pull out a victory, it is going to have to come on the backs of their offensive line. Like their defensive line, the Eagles have the most intimidating offensive front in the NFL. They attempted to push around Atlanta, rushing the ball 32 times in the Divisional round, over half of their 63 offensive plays. For the most part, Atlanta’s rush defense was stout, only allowing 96 yards, but Philadelphia’s relentless effort paid off. They controlled the time of possession and were able to set up comfortable run-pass options for Foles.

Pederson will try to follow a similar blueprint this time around. The Falcons lost Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn in free agency. The Eagles want to slow the pace of play with their run-game and ease Foles in, especially against a daunting secondary. Atlanta is going to need gargantuan efforts from players outside of Grady Jarrett to slow down Philly’s rushing attack.

Another concern for the Falcons has to be Matt Ryan’s performances in Philadelphia. A Philly native, Lincoln Financial field is one of the few stages where Ryan has really struggled. Not only was Ryan barely able to throw for 200 yards on the way to 10 points in the Divisional round; since he was drafted in 2008, the Falcons are 1-3 in Philadelphia and have managed to score over 17 points just once. In comparison, Ryan is 2-0 with 6 touchdown passes at home versus the Eagles.

With that being said, it is hard to imagine the Eagles remaining composed on a night that will be filled with distractions. Atlanta will be the healthier and more talented team heading into week one. It is going to take a perfectly executed game plan, much like the one the Eagles used to defeat the Falcons in the playoffs, for Philly to come up with a win. And frankly, I just do not see that happening in week one with a Super Bowl hangover staring them in the face. The Falcons make a statement with a rare convincing win in Matt Ryan’s hometown.

Falcons 23, Eagles 12

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