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High-flying Philadelphia Eagles next on Atlanta Falcons' Super Bowl redemption tour

By The Sports Xchange
High-flying Philadelphia Eagles next on Atlanta Falcons' Super Bowl redemption tour
Falcons running back DeVonta Freeman scores past Rams defensive back Lamarcus Joyner (L) during their NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Los Angeles on January 6, 2018. Photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI | License Photo

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Playing with unmatched poise, the Atlanta Falcons were able to upset the Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs.

The Falcons, the defending NFC champions, blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots last year.

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They are determined to get back to the big game and atone for that.

Next team in the way is the high-flying and well-rested Philadelphia Eagles, who will have to play with backup quarterback Nick Foles.

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"We are a battle-tested brotherhood, and that kind of experience I thought certainly showed up (against the Rams)," head coach Dan Quinn said. "We talked to the team about passing the baton between offense, defense, special teams, and I thought you saw a good bit of that."

The Falcons are fine with going on the road.

"We're starting to play our best ball and be the best version of ourselves, and we recognize we're all an extension of each other," Quinn said. "The best part of our team is the team. We've got another prove-it opportunity this week."

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The Eagles were 10-2 start when star second-year quarterback Carson Wentz sustained a season-ending knee injury.

Foles, who has bounced around the league with three teams and is serving his second stint with the Eagles, will quarterback the Eagles when they face the Falcons in the NFC divisional round of the playoffs at 4:35 p.m. on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.

The Eagles finished 13-3 and won the NFC East division.

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Wentz had broken the franchise record for touchdown passes in a season when he went down in a game against the Rams on Dec. 10. The Eagles went on to win 43-25 and improve to 11-2.

With Foles at the controls, the Eagles won on the road against the New York Giants 34-29, beat Oakland 19-10 and lost to Dallas 6-0.

Foles has completed 57 of 101 passes (56.4 percent) for 537 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions.

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"Most often the scheme stays the same based on who's playing quarterback," Quinn said. "Now, they may feature certain plays more than another based on who that backup quarterback is. That's what we'll go to see, what's the same and what's different in terms of what they do."

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Wentz had the Eagles passing attack playing at a high level. The top three receivers combined for 25 touchdown passes this season.

"Likely there's not a wholesale change unless there was a quarterback that had unbelievable movement or ways to run it more based on who he was," Quinn said.

The Eagles' rushing attack is led by LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry after being trading to the Eagles by Miami.

Ajayi is the only back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Falcons this season. He rushed 26 times for 130 yards to help the Dolphins defeat the Falcons 20-17 on Oct. 15.

At the trading deadline, Ajayi was sent to the Eagles for a fourth-round pick.

The Eagles' defense is anchored by defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, a three-time Pro-Bowl selection.

The Eagles finished with 38 sacks this season. Defensive end Brandon Graham led the team with 9.5 sacks. Cox had 5.5 sacks and Chris Long and rookie defensive end Derek Barnett added five each.

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The Eagles ranked fourth in total yards allowed (306.5 per game), first in rushing yards allowed (79.2), 17th in passing yards allowed (227.3) and fourth in points allowed (18.4).

"They've played terrifically this year," Quinn said. "I think if I'm not mistaken, they finished plus-11 in the turnover margin (they did) and finished as the No. 1-ranked rush defense, good job in scoring, so we'll have our work cut out for us for sure."

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The Falcons know the Eagles will be stout.

"Each week as you get into the playoffs, it's almost like back to the division games," head coach Dan Quinn said. "In our opinion a lot of times you have to throw some of the stats out and say, 'What's the best thing to do to win this game?' This matchup, how to feature our guys with the matchups that we have the very best, and that's what we'll do putting the game plan together."

The Eagles beat the Falcons last season 24-15 on Nov. 13 at Lincoln Financial Field. Philadelphia ran the ball for 208 yards and had 152 yards in returns against the Falcons' special teams.

"We'll definitely go back and look at last year's as well, knowing from a play-caller standpoint on both sides and on special teams as well, look at all the games this year, and we'll certainly look at our game from last year as well," Quinn said.

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A staple of the Rams' offense was their screen passes. They were able to complete only 4 of 10 for 29 yards. Running back Todd Gurley, their leading receiver with 72 catches for 788 yards, caught four passes for 10 yards.

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The Falcons slowed down the Rams' outside runs, too.

Atlanta allowed just 10 rushing yards outside the tackles all game. The Rams were averaging 46 yards on the perimeter.

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The Falcons didn't throw the ball down the field much against the Rams, but Matt Ryan's wide receivers were able to get him yards after the catch.

The Falcons had a season-low in average depth of target in the win over Carolina at 6.4 yards. The Panthers' wild pass rush forced Ryan to get the ball off quickly.

With defensive tackle Aaron Donald on the loose, Ryan had to get rid of the ball even quicker against the Rams.

Ryan was even less likely to throw downfield against the Rams with a 4.3 average depth of target, according to profootballfocus.com. With the short passes, the Falcons relied heavily on the receivers getting yards after the catch and they had a season-high 70.6 percent of his passing yards coming after the catch against the Rams.

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Julio Jones caught all nine of his targets for 94 yards and had 13 yards rushing.

NOTES: RB Devonta Freeman, who had a troublesome three-game stretch where he averaged 1.75 yards after contact and had four fumbles, has pulled through his slump. In the last two games, he's averaged 2.93 yards after contact per carry and hasn't fumbled. ... CB Brian Poole exemplified the Falcons' commitment to open-field tackling against the Rams. Poole had four tackles, including a solo tackle, according to profootballfocus.com. He didn't miss any tackles and has more stops in the passing game (24) than any cornerback in the league this season. ... LB Deion Jones was strong against the run and in coverage. He finished with 10 tackles and was targeted on six pass plays. Jones allowed three catches for 24 yards, but only five came after the catch. ... OLB Vic Beasley Jr. recorded his first career sack in the playoffs. Beasley finished the game three tackles. ... QB Matt Ryan went 21 of 30 for 218 yards and one touchdown, with a 101.8 passer rating. Ryan has thrown 19 touchdowns in nine career playoff games. Ryan has a 102.4 postseason passer rating in his career. The only two qualifying players with a higher mark are Pro Football Hall of Famers Bart Starr (104.8) and Kurt Warner (102.8).

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REPORT CARD VS. RAMS

--PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus - Matt Ryan was 21 of 30 for 218 yards and one touchdown. Julio Jones had nine catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. A pass play of 27 yards to Jones sparked the Falcons near the end of the first quarter and led to a 51-yard field goal to make the score 6-0. Ryan didn't have much time and was sacked three times in the first half. The Falcons couldn't overcome poor starting field position in the first half, as Ryan completed 11-of-17 passes for 86 yards. The footing was bad as several players were slipping, including left tackle Jake Matthews on the sack he gave up to Rams outside linebacker Robert Quinn. Ryan slipped on his key touchdown pass to Jones, but had enough on the pass to get it to Jones.

--RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus - Despite getting stuffed early, the Falcons stayed with the run and eventually things worked out. The Falcons wanted to establish the run against the 28th-ranked run defense in the NFL, but opened the first series with three consecutive passes. Devonta Freeman (eight for 19) and Tevin Coleman (four for 15) combined for 12 carries for a paltry 34 yards in the first half. Freeman had a 3-yard touchdown when center Alex Mack carried him in for the final two yards. Julio Jones' 13-yard reverse was the longest gain of the first half. On the opening drive of the third quarter, Freeman broke loose for a 22-yard gain over the left side of the line. The line started to pound the Rams and eventually wore them down. Freeman rushed 18 times for 66 yards. Coleman 12 times for 37 yards.

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--RUSH DEFENSE: B - Todd Gurley rushed 14 times for 101 yards, but he had to earn all of it against a sure-tackling unit. The linebackers did a good job of containing Gurley. He did break loose for a 26-yard gain and for some unknown reason, free safety Ricardo Allen hit him out of bounds. Linebacker Deion Jones did a good job of diagnosing plays and filling his gaps.

--PASS DEFENSE: C - Cornerback Desmond Trufant had a rough day in coverage. Robert Woods had nine catches for 142 yards with most of it coming with Trufant in coverage. On Cooper Kupp's 14-yard touchdown pass, Woods picked nickel back Brian Poole on the play. On the drive right before the half that resulted in a field goal, Trufant, who struggled for most of the day, was beaten inside by Woods for a 38-yard gain. Alford had a strong game with three tackles and three pass breakups.

--SPECIAL TEAMS: A - Matt Bryant made 4-of-4 field-goal attempts and the coverage units came up with two turnovers that were converted into 10 points. The Falcons received the first big break of the game when the Rams' Blake Countess touched a Matt Bosher punt that was recovered by LaRoy Reynolds on the Rams' 17-yard line. That led to a field goal after the offense stalled. On the ensuing kickoff, the Falcons committed a special-teams penalty as Damontae Kazee had a block below the waist. Instead of being bottled up at the 17-yard line, the Rams started the drive at the 32-yard line. Kazee made up for it by stripping Rams All-Pro returner Pharoh Cooper, and Kemal Ishmael recovered.

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--COACHING: B - The Falcons didn't fix their red-zone issues and had to keep settling for field goals. They entered the game 2-of-9 in the red zone over the previous two games. They were 1-of-3 in the red zone against the Rams after their opening drive to start the second half. The offensive line did come out with some fire after getting pushed around in the first half. The defense made Gurley earn his yards, and second-year quarterback Jared Goff was not able to beat them. Despite some flaws, the Falcons are playing hard in order to overcome any shortcomings. They are going to be a tough out in the playoffs as they appear determined to make it back to the Super Bowl.

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