Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) calls his cadence during the second quarter of an NFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles on January 13, 2018 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Photo by Derik Hamilton/UPI | License Photo
Thursday night's 2018 NFL season debut features a matchup of the victor and the vanquished from the last two Super Bowls as the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles welcome the Atlanta Falcons for an 8:20 p.m. ET skirmish at Lincoln Financial Field.
From a historic perspective, this duel is between an Eagles team that outgunned the New England Patriots in the last Super Bowl and a Falcons team that was overcome in an embarrassing fall-from-in-front loss in the previous Super Bowl. Both Super Bowls were against the Patriots.
Although the main news in big games usually surrounds the starting quarterbacks, the hot topic this time is about the quarterback who will not play -- Eagles second-year sensation Carson Wentz. He remains the starter-in-waiting until medically cleared for a return from that mid-December surgery to repair two ligaments in his right knee, which ended a spectacular season for the quarterback.
After initially acting testy about naming his starting quarterback, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson announced Monday that it would be Nick Foles, who was merely the Super Bowl LII MVP in a victorious 41-33 shootout over Tom Brady and the Patriots about eight months ago.
Tuesday, Pederson openly shared the agony and reality of keeping Wentz on the sideline because he was not medically cleared after the player himself set a goal for opening day and worked hard to reach that goal. Pederson said that there were no setbacks, and said the quarterback is in a "good place" and "close" to returning, although admitting frustration because "I'm no medical expert."
And Pederson's frustration, which spilled out in two press conferences, might reflect what he does hear from medical experts. Dr. David Chao, a board certified orthopaedical surgeon who was a team physician for the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers for 17 years, does not sound optimistic about a rapid return by Wentz. In fact, he says it could be weeks, or maybe even next season, before Wentz should play.
Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the Falcons are trying to become the first NFL team to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium, with Super Bowl LIII scheduled for Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3, 2019. It is a realistic goal after the team added even more offensive firepower and is expected to return to the sort of high-scoring offense that propelled them to the championship game two years ago.
Still, the 2018 Falcons are a bit of a mystery. Head coach Dan Quinn did a great job protecting wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman. Neither played a down in the four preseason games.
He limited the snaps for quarterback Matt Ryan and other key players, such as wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, running back Tevin Coleman and first-round draft choice wide receiver Calvin Ridley. As a result, the team is probably as healthy as it has ever been entering the first game.
So, the Atlanta offense will have all its pieces in place and must hit the ground running, with Freeman and Coleman, and allow Ryan to get in sync with his receivers. The first-team offense looked great when it played against Kansas City, but struggled against Jacksonville (albeit both times without Freeman and Jones).
The defense will repeat the same aggressive nature it took in the playoffs when it held the Eagles to 15 points. However, the defense must find a way to get Philadelphia off the field faster. They allowed the Eagles to convert 6 of 13 third-down opportunities and allowed them to have three possessions of 5:42 or longer and three drives that lasted 12 or more plays.
The Eagles must pressure Ryan, who historically has not played well in Philadelphia after growing up in the area. The Eagles have a way of dialing up their attack against him. Their defensive line may be even better than last season and is arguably the best in the league, with a rotation that includes Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Chris Long, Michael Bennett, Haloti Ngata and Fletcher Cox.
On offense, the Eagles have issues other than the controversy at quarterback, where Foles has proven his ability. Receiver Alshon Jeffery did not participate in any team drills during training camp. Left tackle Jason Peters and running back Darren Sproles did not play in the preseason. Running back Corey Clement only played in the first exhibition game and running back Jay Ajayi was held out in the final two games while receivers Nelson Agholor and Mack Hollins did not play in any of the four games.
But the Eagles' defense helped beat Atlanta before. Two years ago, it held the Falcons to 15 points and won. Last year in the playoffs, it held them to 10 points and won again.
-- Sports Xchange NFL team insiders Ed Kracz and Stan Awtrey contributed to this story.