Friday, January 21, 2005
-Lose free agent critical to previous year’s team’s success, prompting a lot of fretting from the fans about this year’s chances.
-Surprise everyone by winning the NFC East.
-Surprise everyone by winning home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
-Win opening round game.
-Play in the NFC title game before the home fans.
This is the Eagles fourth consecutive NFC title game, and hopefully their first victory in one since the 1980 season when they defeated the Dallas Cowboys 20-7 to go to Super Bowl XV. This is the Falcons first NFC title game in six years, since they surprised the seemingly invincible 15-1 Minnesota Vikings (remember Randy Moss’ rookie year?) and went on to lose the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, John Elway’s final game. The pressure of history is firmly on the Eagles, who desperately need to win and shake the label of “can’t win the big one”. Meanwhile, the Falcons have no pressure on them. Their 11-5 season was a surprise to everyone in the NFL, including themselves.
I think the game is interesting chiefly as a matchup of Vick v. McNabb. Two African-American QBs. But the similarities end there. Vick, the first pick of the 2001 draft, has had his NFL career hyped and analyzed and talked about to death. For a quarterback who has played just 43 games in his career, Vick has had a big impact on the league. His image is everywhere and his explosive plays always find their way to Sportscenter and NFL Primetime. McNabb was over-shadowed, despite being the #2 pick in the 1999 draft, by flashier colleagues like Dante Culpepper and generally hasn’t gotten the attention Vick has. Despite being the NFL’s runner-up for MVP in 2000, McNabb has been very under-rated: criticized for his supposed lack of accuracy, failures in the NFC title game, McNabb has stood tall and played with consistency and confidence. While Vick has outstanding scrambling skills, his ability to throw the ball is inconsistent at best. McNabb has transitioned from having to carry the offense with his legs and become one of the NFL's deadliest passers.
The addition of Terrell Owens to the Eagles offense dramatically helped McNabb:
Completion % / Yards per Pass Attempt / TD-INT
2000: 58.0% / 5.9 / 21-13
2001: 57.8% / 6.6 / 25-12
2002: 58.4% / 6.3 / 17-6 (missed 6 games)
2003: 57.5% / 6.7 / 16-11
2004: 64.0% / 8.3 / 31-8
The addition of T.O. elevated the Eagles offensively this season:
Points: 24.1 per game, third in NFC
Rushing Yards: 102.4 per game, tenth in the NFC
Passing Yards: 248.1 per game, fourth in the NFC
Third Down %: 36.9, sixth in NFC
The Eagles are weak running the ball (losing Buckhalter in the pre-season hurt), but their passing game has never been stronger. Witness last week’s victory over the Vikings: even without T.O. McNabb hit on 21 of 33 passes, striking on short and intermediate routes with authority. The Eagles strategy has been to throw the ball to loosen up the opposing defense and then hit them with some runs to keep them honest.
The Falcons could not be more different:
Points: 21.3 per game, seventh in NFC
Rushing Yards: 167.0 per game, first in the NFC
Passing Yards: 150.0 per game, fifteenth in the NFC
Third Down %: 36.3, eighth in NFC
Probably the only NFL team to rush for more yards than they threw for during the 2004 season. While the Falcons run a variation of the West Coast offense like the Eagles, the Falcons inability to throw the ball with consistency shows that they haven’t mastered the system. What’s more, the Falcons have looked terrible during their regular season losses, totally befuddled and confused by quick defenses that jammed their running lanes. Look for the Eagles to play eight men in the box, with Brian Dawkins functioning as an extra linebacker.
The Eagles have always been a great defensive team, putting pressure on the quarterback and shutting down opposing passing games, however the Eagles have been weak against the run since Jeremiah Trotter left after the 2001 season. Trotter’s return to the lineup sparked a dramatic change in the Eagles defense: formerly porous against the run, the Eagles became pretty balanced:
Points Allowed: 16.3, first in NFC
Rushing yards allowed: 118.9, sixth in NFC
Passing yards allowed: 200.8, sixth in NFC
Sacks: 47, second in NFC
The Falcons unit is stronger against the run (you’d have to be, playing the Carolina Panthers twice a year), but weak against the pass:
Points Allowed: 21.1, sixth in NFC
Rushing yards allowed: 105.1, second in NFC
Passing yards allowed: 220.4, twelfth in NFC
Sacks: 48, first in NFC
The Falcons make up for their passing yards allowed by rushing the quarterback. Sunday will match up the two best pass rushes in the NFC.
Four times a charm? As Andy Reid said, he’s getting tired of coaching the NFC team in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. However, while the pressure is on the Eagles in the media I don’t think the fans are quite as anxious as in years past. The 2002 team looked like a Super Bowl winner, so its loss to the Bucs was disheartening. The 2003 team seemed like the Eagles last chance at winning: the team had declined in talent so much between seasons, that many assumed ’03 was the Eagles last shot. And here we are again. I think the Eagles are calm and confident this year, knowing that this team is the best that they’ve taken to the big game yet.
The Falcons, in contrast, look like a team that is playing above its talent level. Simply put, the Falcons aren’t that good: their offense is 80% Vick, 10% Dunn, 5% Duckett and 5% Crumpler. If Vick struggles, the Eagles win in a walk. The Eagles are strong enough to survive a bad performance from McNabb, or if the defense fails to stop Vick, the offense is good enough to get into a shoot-out with the Falcons and win. On both sides of the ball the Eagles are deep, balanced, tough and ready. This team will win.
Prediction (revised): Eagles 38-13
Monday: I’ll give my thoughts on Sunday’s games and, if the Eagles are in it, I’ll breakdown the Super Bowl matchups. Otherwise, back to baseball and there is a lot to talk about: the Phillies arbitration deals, singing Offermann, etc.
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