If you’re looking for the strangest underdog story of the 2017 NFL season, look no further than Philadelphia on Saturday.
That’s where this weekend’s slate of postseason games will kick off, but it’s also where the Eagles (13-3) will open their playoff run as the first higher-seeded team since 1970 to be underdogs in their own home game. Ranked atop the NFC after a historic win streak on the back of MVP candidate Carson Wentz, the Birds have been both downplaying and talking up their status as a “disrespected” No. 1 seed since Wentz’s season-ending knee injury raised questions about their ability to go deep in the playoffs.
Their first foe, the Atlanta Falcons, are in a very different place.
A surprise playoff team after their monumental Super Bowl LI collapse, the Falcons are also the conference’s lowest-ranked postseason contender, and yet they enter Lincoln Financial Field as the favorites to return to the NFC Championship. Talent-wise, not a whole lot has changed since they last made a run through their January schedule, and they’re fresh off an upset over the high-flying Los Angeles Rams. But they’ve also battled sloppiness throughout the entirety of 2017, making the Eagles, whose record would have them favored in any other year, a potential spoiler.
Come kickoff, everything will be on the line for both sides. Win, and it’s on to the NFC title game with a shot at the Super Bowl. Lose, and the season is over.
Here’s what you need to know about Saturday’s Divisional Round showdown:
How to watch, stream
Kickoff: Jan. 13, 4:35 p.m. ET
TV: NBC (Check local listings)
Streaming: fuboTV (Try for free)
How can the Eagles win?
This starts with the defense. Since Wentz went down, it’s been Jim Schwartz’s unit that’s had the most pull on Eagles victories, save for backup quarterback Nick Foles’ four-touchdown debut as the fill-in under center. Philadelphia has been opportunistic all year, and the team has been even better in stopping the run. So limiting the Devonta Freeman-Tevin Coleman combo, forcing Matt Ryan to throw at a stadium where he’s 1-3 on his career and getting pressure in the pocket is the biggest key to Philly upsetting the defending NFC champions.
Running the ball would also be a monumental help for the Eagles. Foles is at his best when he’s got a ground game on his side, so feeding Jay Ajayi, the team’s most explosive option out of the backfield, is a must. Philadelphia likes to do a lot of East-West running, especially with No. 3 man Corey Clement, but against Atlanta, the best bet might be to charge the ball right up the middle, so as to at least partially limit linebacker Deion Jones’ impact as a sideline-to-sideline run stopper. Gaining more than 100 yards on the ground would be a recipe for success not only for Foles but for the team, which ran the ball to victory over the Falcons in 2016.
How can the Falcons win?
Ryan has plenty of weapons at his disposal, so priority No. 1 should be utilizing them in balance. The Falcons have been just pedestrian for stretches of this season, but when they’re firing on all cylinders, allowing Julio Jones to stretch the field, the running backs to set up short conversions and guys like Austin Hooper to float in the middle, they’re dangerous. The Eagles have a potential weak link in the middle, where late-season pickup Dannell Ellerbe may or may not start at linebacker, so Atlanta would be smart to attack the heart of Philly’s “D,” then get creative in spreading the ball — and, thus, holding it for most of the game.
Special teams is almost always overlooked until it, you know, swings the outcome of a game. But the Falcons are coming off a Wild Card win that came largely thanks to some big plays on that unit. It’s hard to force your special teams into a huge role during game day, perhaps, but Atlanta should be confident if Saturday’s showdown comes down to this area. Matt Bryant is built for these types of matchups, and he’s also got quite the history kicking against the Eagles. Saturday’s clash figures to be close if Bryant has a chance at a clutch play, and common sense says that if things are close, the Falcons have the edge.
Who will win?
The Eagles might be the No. 1 seed, but almost no one likes them to come off what’s essentially been two weeks of rest to “upset” the Falcons, as seven of our eight NFL analysts at CBSSports.com picked Atlanta to go back to the NFC Championship.
Other national media have also piled onto the Falcons bandwagon in advance of Saturday’s showdown, making Atlanta the consensus favorite to turn the 2017 Eagles into a one-and-done playoff team.
Still, even without Wentz, Philadelphia boasts the NFL’s top-ranked run defense and has a favorable history against the Falcons, particularly at home. So if you’re looking for the weekend’s biggest toss-up outside of maybe the Minnesota Vikings vs. New Orleans Saints, this is it.
Check out all of the playoff picks from our NFL crew right here.