Tonight, meaningful football returns to Philadelphia for the first time since the Eagles were trouncing the Vikings to earn a trip to the Super Bowl. We all remember what happened next. Now it’s time for the Birds to begin their title defense, and here are four factors we’re watching that could decide the game.
This one is painfully obvious, but it can’t be ignored. Frankly, Nick Foles has spent the last 10 months oscillating between two extremes. On the good end, he looked like an elite quarterback, dicing up the Vikings and Patriots en route to a Lombardi Trophy and Super Bowl MVP award. On the other end, he has looked pedestrian at best, but has been the beneficiary of the majority of Eagles fans excusing or dismissing his poor play due to the meaninglessness of the games (last regular season games last year, preseason this year). Well, now the games count again, and we have no idea which version of Foles to expect.
The Eagles don’t need the nearly flawless version of Foles we saw in the NFC championship game and Super Bowl to win tonight. However, if they get the 2018 preseason version, it will take a herculean effort from the running game and the defense to open the season with a victory.
The offensive play this preseason, along with the injuries, have created all sorts of questions for tonight about chemistry and timing and rhythm. A confident, effective Foles will be necessary to quell some of those concerns and to put the Eagles in position to start the season with a win.
Zach Ertz vs. Falcons LBs
In Alshon Jeffery’s absence, the Eagles are left with a ton of question marks at the receiver position. Nelson Agholor is the lone known commodity Nick Foles will be working with at WR. Beyond Agholor, we will all be waiting to see if Mike Wallace is ready to turn it on or if his quiet preseason was a sign of things to come, and what the Eagles can get out of the inexperienced duo of Shelton Gibson and DeAndre Carter.
Enter Zach Ertz. Ertz has developed into a consistent and reliable weapon for the Birds, and he will be a key on Thursday night. In yesterday’s position-by-position breakdown, we mentioned the versatility of the Falcons linebackers and the cover ability of De’Vondre Campbell. The ability of Ertz to win his battles and help out the wide receivers could be the difference between the stagnant offense we’ve seen throughout the preseason and one that more closely resembles what we expect the unit to be (and one that can do enough for the Eagles to win the game).
If Ertz is getting open and Foles is connecting with him, things could start to tilt in the Eagles’ favor.
The Defensive Line
It’s no secret that some of the best ways to contain a potent offense are to control the running game and to get pressure on the quarterback. And those two things start with the defensive line.
If you read yesterday’s position-by-position breakdown, you know that we have a strength-on-strength situation between the Eagles’ D-line and the Falcons’ offensive line. You also know that the Falcons’ offensive line built much of its success last season through run-blocking and that they were middle of the pack when it came to keeping Matt Ryan pressure-free.
And so, on a night when the Eagles defense is under a bit of extra pressure, much of the attention will be on the classic battle in the trenches. Can the defensive line match the strength of the Falcons offensive line and keep the running game in check? And perhaps more importantly, can they bother and get to Matt Ryan in passing situations?
Football games are long, and fortunes can turn in the blink of an eye. But if we see the defensive line winning battles and making plays it will bode well for the Eagles chances.
Tonight will mark the first time in franchise history that the Philadelphia Eagles will play a regular season game as Super Bowl champions. Let that sink in for a minute………Okay, now let’s get back to it.
The banner will be raised, the fans will be hyped, and it will all set a scene that none of us have seen before. The Eagles will have a ton of energy and crowd noise at their backs to start the game. But emotion can sometimes be a double-edged sword.
Some teams can take that energy and emotion and channel it to take their game to another level. Other teams can be overwhelmed by the emotion, leading to mental errors and mistakes. Either way, games with this type of supercharged atmosphere tend to be affected by the energy.
In an ideal situation, the Eagles will throttle the energy and convert it into a hot start, putting the Falcons in a nearly impossible situation. At the very least, hopefully the Birds will be able to get a lift in key spots from the energy.
In today’s era of analytics people tend to dismiss the effect of subjective things like emotion, momentum, and even team chemistry. But if you’ve played and/or watched enough sports, you know it’s real, even if we can’t quantify it. (Last year’s Eagles are a great example of the importance of chemistry.)
Early in tonight’s game, we’ll be watching for hints that the Eagles have either harnessed the emotion and channeled it into a positive or are being overwhelmed by it.
It should be quite a scene in South Philadelphia. The Eagles will raise a Super Bowl banner, then will battle a team that they are incredibly evenly matched with, a team they played in last year’s playoffs and that has legitimate aspirations to take the Eagles’ spot at the top.
As the celebration shifts to the business at hand, we’ll be watching the four aforementioned areas for clues as to how the game will play out, and will likely revisit them when breaking down the outcome of the game.