Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles: Back Ryan's crew to stun Super Bowl champs

Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan
Can Matt Ryan carry Atlanta to a road win over the Super Bowl champs?

First games don't get much more competitive than this! Kieran O'Connor previews this repeat of last year's NFC Divisional Playoff and he believes Atlanta can run Philly close...

"Foles tends to throw a portion of passes to players at or even behind the line of scrimmage, he benefits from good receivers making yards after the catch, not from his passing. With Wentz in the pocket the Eagles look balanced, with Foles they do not. This is a huge concern for Thursday night."

Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles
Friday September 7, 01:30
Live on Sky Sports

Eagles weakened without Wentz

The NFL season begins on Thursday, as the Super Bowl Champions the Philadelphia Eagles host the Atlanta Falcons. This is of course a replay of the NFC Divisional Playoff game from last season which the Eagles won 15-10 on their way to the Super Bowl.

Nick Foles was the man in the pocket for Philadelphia that day, and he will be again on Thursday as Carson Wentz remain on the side-lines. Wentz, was likely on his way to the NFL MVP award in 2017 before he suffered a torn ACL in a Week 14 game against the Los Angeles Rams. At that point in the season, the Eagles were 11-2 and Wentz had 33 touchdowns with seven interceptions.

In stepped Foles to lead the Eagles to a huge underdog win against the might of Tom Brady and the Pats. Wentz has not taken to the field since December, he didn't suit up for pre-season and is likely to be out for several weeks. So, the big question is, are the Eagles better or worse off with Foles as Quarterback? For me, there's no question, they are worse off.

Foles was less than inspiring in the four regular season games he played. He made a huge step up on the post season, 352 yards (on 26-for-33 passing) and three touchdowns versus Minnesota the highlight, but, the Eagles had to change their game for him. Forty percent of Wentz's passes went 10 or more yards downfield, compared with 25 percent for Foles in the playoffs. Foles also tends to throw a portion of passes to players at or even behind the line of scrimmage, he benefits from good receivers making yards after the catch, not from his passing. With Wentz in the pocket the Eagles look balanced, with Foles they do not. This is a huge concern for Thursday night.

Enigmatic Atlanta

The Falcons are a bit of an enigma, in Matt Ryan they have one of the best (if not the most explosive) Quarterbacks in the league. Julio Jones at Wide Receiver and Devota Freeman at Running Back are as good as any. Neither player touched a ball over preseason to be ready for this game. Mohamed Sanu backs up Jones, running back Tevin Coleman backs up Freeman and first-round draft choice wide receiver Calvin Ridley should add to the offence. He is one of the few new faces at the Falcons, as 19 of their 22 starters from 2017 are returning.

Their defence remains strong but there remains no Super Bowl for this group of players. They should have beaten the Pats two years ago but blew a lead. They were unlucky in the play-offs last year against this Eagles side. They 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 February 3, 2019. This is a huge season for Atlanta and I expect them to start strong.

While I mentioned earlier that the Falcons' defence was strong, they do not turn the ball over enough. Last season, the Falcons took the ball away from opponents just 16 times, the fourth lowest total in football, and their nine interceptions were also the fourth least. This needs to change. With Foles in the pocket, they can start to change this on Thursday. Ryan will look to improve on last season's figures which were below par for him at least. Ryan remains a great quarterback- since 2015 he leads all quarterbacks in yards per attempt. Look for Ryan to have a huge year, for me he's a possible regular season MVP.

Freeman and Coleman key to Atlanta's hopes

Last year, over the course of the regular season, the Eagles had the best home-field scoring differential in the NFL, an average of 15.3 points. Make no mistake, playing in Philly is tough for any team. For me, this game may well come down to Freeman and Coleman against the Eagles' run defence. The Eagles were the top-ranked rushing defence in 2017, holding opponents to an average of 79.2 yards on the ground. I expect Atlanta to hit the Eagles on the ground early to see if there's any rust in the early season.

Eagles can follow Pats with first week defeat

This weekend last year, the Pats celebrated their fifth Super Bowl, unveiled a banner and had a big party to celebrate how great they were. They lost that night 42-27 to Kansas.

With Foles as quarterback and the Falcons looking for revenge, and desperate to go all the way to a home Super Bowl I expect fireworks on Thursday. I'm going for the Super Bowl Champions to again lose the first game of the season, but to keep it safe let's go for the Falcons +2.5 at 19/20.

Anyone who watched the Falcons over the late two seasons will know that Devonta Freeman tends to bring the ball down the field but Tevin Coleman can come in for Redzone opportunities. He also had three receiving TDs to his name last season so he is worth a small bet for Anytime TD at 9/4.

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