The moment of truth has arrived for the Philadelphia Eagles. A season of hard work and commitment to winning is about to be put to the ultimate test as the Eagles look to win their first playoff game since 2008. Head coach Doug Pederson makes his postseason debut as a head coach, and he can only hope to have a similar experience to his mentor, Andy Reid by winning his postseason debut with the Birds in his second season.
Unlike Reid back in 2000, however, Pederson is without his franchise quarterback for his first playoff game as head coach. While Reid was able to run with Donovan McNabb coming into his own as a pro, Pederson has no other choice than to ride with Nick Foles, the veteran backup to second-year quarterback Carson Wentz.
The moment Wentz went down for the year with a season-ending injury in the second half of a game against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14, the entire outlook of the season took a dramatic turn, seemingly driving right off the Ben Franklin Bridge.
The Eagles still had enough in the tank to finish the season with the top record in the NFC, wrapping up home-field advantage for the playoffs with a Week 16 win against the Oakland Raiders. But the final few games of the season left fans with little reason to be inspired about the team’s chances with Foles running the offense.
The best performance Foles had in the final month of the season came against the New York Giants, a team in disarray and locking in the second pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. You don’t get brownie points for playing decent against that team this season. The offense was stale against an Oakland team with nothing to play for on Christmas, and the brief time on the field in a meaningless game against the Dallas Cowboys in frigid temperatures ended the season on a down note for Foles and the Eagles offense.
Now come the Atlanta Falcons, the defending NFC champions fresh off a west coast wild-card victory against the Rams in a game that saw the Atlanta defense chop down the NFL’s most dynamic and explosive offense on their home field. And they have their starting quarterback, Philadelphia area native Matt Ryan.
Atlanta may have gotten into the NFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed, but the competition was deep in the conference this season and the Falcons were the third team from the NFC South to reach the playoffs with double-digit victories. This wasn’t some No. 6 team destined for an early exit on the road. They had a shot to make some noise right from the start, and the experience from last year to fall back on after coming up a defensive stop or two from celebrating a Super Bowl championship.
The Falcons swoop into Philadelphia as a favorite against the No. 1 seed. If nothing else, this shows the value of having Wentz on the field, and Las Vegas oddsmakers making the Eagles a historic home underdog should drive that point home with a heavy hammer.
David Purdum of ESPN notes that the Eagles are the first home underdog in their first playoff game since 1975 (when the NFL started determining home-field advantage based on win percentages). The Eagles aren’t just a slight underdog at home, either. The Falcons are anywhere from a 2.5- to 3-point favorite, depending on the sportsbook. If you consider the home team typically gets three points in their favor just for being the home team, that is quite a swing in Atlanta’s favor. The Minnesota Vikings are a four-point favorite against the New Orleans Saints and both the Pittsburgh Steelers (+7.5) and New England Patriots (+13.5) are significant favorites against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, respectively.
So the question is just how the Eagles will embrace the underdog status while playing at home.
— EROCK (@TheMightyEROCK) January 8, 2018
Time and time again, successful coaches have attempted to play the disrespect card to their players as a rallying cry. It is a standard technique that works to various degrees, but sometimes that method is completely fabricated and merits absolutely no credibility. But does it work anyway?
Last year, leading up to the College Football Playoff, Alabama head coach Nick Saban tried suggesting to his players that nobody was giving the Crimson Tide a shot to win, going so far as to have anonymous quotes pinned on a bulletin board. It was laughable, of course, because Alabama is just about always considered a favorite and they were coming off a national championship the previous season. Even this season, the “nobody believed us” card was played after Alabama was selected for the playoff despite not even participating in the SEC Championship.
#Alabama RB Damien Harris shouting in the locker room: “THEY SAID WE WERENT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, AND WE WON ALL OF THIS!”
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) January 9, 2018
This situation, however, really is a bit different for the Eagles. Very few are giving the Eagles a puncher’s chance to go far in the postseason, and many are already scripting the “Minnesota Vikings playing a Super Bowl in their home stadium” story. Not having Wentz after an MVP-caliber season certainly puts the Eagles in a rough spot, especially with what we have seen out of Foles so far as the starter. But Philadelphia has a roster full of players who helped get the Eagles home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, and there is still a chance this team could shock the world, as some will say.
The defense has still been a strength for the Eagles this season, although it had a couple of rough spots late in the season that need to be addressed. Otherwise, Julio Jones will run wild on them in the open field. The running game must get going as well, with Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount pounding away on a Falcons defense that allowed over seven yards per carry to Todd Gurley a week ago.
Can the Eagles win a game at home as a historic underdog? Absolutely. And despite the strength of the Falcons, perhaps the Eagles should still look like the favorite in this divisional round showdown. But even if the Eagles do advance to the conference championship, they will once again play the underdog role at home against either the Vikings or Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
We’re not even going to get into any possible Super Bowl scenarios yet. Let’s just see if the Eagles can survive a weekend at home first.