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Eagles stand in way of surging Falcons and unfinished business.

Ignore the seeds. Forget the records. The sixth-seeded Falcons will invade Philadelphia expecting to return to the NFC Championship game, a three-point favorite that is soaring at the right time. They have won seven of their past nine games, including a wild-card road win in Los Angeles over the Rams, and now get their shot...
Time: 00:01     Date: 13.01.2018
Last US Sport News: Eagles stand in way of surging Falcons and unfinished business. NY Post 24 - US News

They have won seven of their past nine games, including a wild-card road win in Los Angeles over the Rams, and now get their shot against the Eagles, the top seed in the NFC that didn’t look the part late in the year with Carson Wentz done for the season with a torn ACL.

“We’re not here just to get here,” Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We want to make noise.”

After a 3-0 start, the sixth-seeded Falcons struggled during the regular season until a fast finish assured them of a second straight playoff appearance. Now the team that blew a 28-3 lead in last year’s Super Bowl can see itself returning to the big game.

“Every week, it never changes for us, it’s championship prep,” wide receiver Julio Jones said. “Try to go out there and take advantage of our opportunities. I have a good feeling about our team, as far as how we are going to play for each other.”

The offense, which performed at such a high level a year ago — averaging a league-high 33.8 points per game and second in total yards — was unable to replicate that performance, scoring 187 fewer points. Everyone’s production dropped. The Falcons didn’t have a single 100-yard rusher in a game. Ryan threw five more interceptions and 18 fewer touchdown passes. But the defense emerged, improving the team’s balance.

The ninth-ranked unit, led by elite cover linebacker Deion Jones, physical defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and lockdown cornerback Desmond Trufant, held the explosive Rams to 13 points, and allowed only 16.3 points per game over the past six contests, which included against five playoff teams.

“They’re not the reigning NFC champs for no reason,” Rams running back Todd Gurley said after the loss.

While the Falcons are playing with utmost confidence, believing they are headed back to the NFC title game, the Eagles have to deal with the absence of their franchise quarterback. They lost Wentz to the knee injury in a win over the Rams on Dec. 10, and though they won two of their final three games, the offense struggled under Nick Foles, Wentz’s replacement. They beat the woeful Giants and underachieving Raiders by a combined 14 points, and were blanked by the Cowboys, 6-0, in the regular season finale.

In parts of five games this year, Foles completed 56 percent of his passes for 537 yards, with five touchdown passes, two interceptions, and five fumbles. The offense simply didn’t run the same with him as with Wentz.

“My message to Nick is: Listen, we have a great opportunity. Let’s go be Nick. Let’s go play. Let’s go execute the offense,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “[If the] opportunity’s there, rip it.”

Marquee Matchup

Eagles RB Jay Ajayi vs. Falcons front seven

Jay Ajayi and the Falcons defensive lineAP; Getty Images

Atlanta allowed just one player to reach 100 yards against them on the ground this year, and he just so happens to be the opponent Saturday afternoon. Before he was traded to the Eagles, Ajayi ran for 130 yards on 26 carries in a 20-17 victory over the Falcons as a member of the Dolphins. Ironically, that was also his only 100-yard performance of the season. But his production was solid in seven games with the Eagles. He ran for 408 yards on 70 carries, a 5.8 yards-per-rush average.

“Same guys. My mentality hasn’t changed,” Ajayi said this week. “My mindset is always downhill, attacking, try to punish guys. One-on-one, it’s all about not being tackled.”

In his seven Eagles games, Ajayi has averaged only 10 carries per game, mixed in with LeGarrette Blount and Corey Cement. But if he has early success on Saturday, alleviating the pressure on Foles, that could change.

“I really do feel like he’s fresh, and that is one of the advantages of what we’ve done and really managing that situation for him in whatever things he has going on physically,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “Certainly, his production has continued to ramp up, and hopefully we keep getting good production from that position.”

Four Downs

Jonesing for the ball: It’s a small sample size, just four games, but Julio Jones has had his way with the Eagles. The Falcons’ five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver is averaging 107 receiving yards per game, highlighted by his 10-catch, 135-yard performance in a loss last year in Philadelphia. His 428 yards through the air and three touchdowns are career-highs against a team outside of the NFC South.

The 6-foot-3 Jones, who was battling rib and ankle injuries entering the postseason, made nine catches on 10 targets for 94 yards and a touchdown in the wild-card win over the Rams. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles approach Jones. Starting cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby, neither of whom is taller than 6-foot, could both see time on him, or one could shadow him.

“He’s just a big guy who can run,” Mills said. “Sometimes you get a lot of big guys — they’re big targets who can catch the ball. He’s a guy who can run at his size and can run routes as well. He’s not just a one-trick pony.”

Dogging it: For the first time in the history of the divisional round of the playoffs, the No. 1 seed is the underdog, with the Falcons picked by the experts in Las Vegas as three-point favorites over the host Eagles. Obviously, the season-ending knee injury to Carson Wentz played a big role in this.

Only six home teams in this round have been underdogs before, according to Pro Football Reference, and all of them were No. 2 seeds. The last time it happened was the wild-card 49ers being favored by a point over the NFC South champion Panthers in 2013. The 49ers won that game, 23-10.

Getting defensive: Overlooked amid Wentz’s MVP-caliber season, the Eagles’ defense will have to lead the way in the playoffs. The fourth-ranked unit allowed just 18.4 points per game, and led the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, at 79.2. The unit was in the middle of the pack in sacks with 38, but has a variety of options, with four players — Chris Long, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett and Fletcher Cox — producing at least five sacks.

Road warriors: The Falcons reached the playoffs in large part to a strong 5-3 road record, which continued on wild-card weekend. They have won three of their past four away from home, and will have to continue to play that way as the visitors to return to the Super Bowl. Last year, the Falcons had home-field advantage in their two NFC playoff games.

“We don’t care where we play these games, because we know it’s about us, not the crowd or the opponent,” Atlanta safety Ricardo Allen said following the win over the Rams.

Prediction

All the momentum rests with the Falcons. They have the better quarterback, the more dynamic offense, and the hot defense. The Eagles have home-field advantage and more time to prepare and rest. It won’t be enough. Nick Foles will make a few costly mistakes, and the Falcons will continue to look like last year’s Super Bowl team.

Falcons 31, Eagles 20

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