The Eagles got the No. 1 seed and a bye week so they will be spectators on Wild Card weekend. There is a pair of games featuring NFC teams, with the Falcons playing the Rams on Saturday and the Panthers playing at the Saints on Sunday. Both games will be of tremendous interest to the Eagles.
The Rams are the only team the Eagles can't face in the Divisional Round. They are the No. 3 seed and if they win, the Rams will face the Vikings. That leaves the Falcons, Panthers, and Saints as potential opponents so let's talk about them and what to watch for this weekend.
Atlanta is the lowest seed, but it made it to the Super Bowl last year and should have won that game. The Falcons are not your typical No. 6 seed. They have the combination of talent and experience to make a postseason run again this year.
The Rams were clearly the better team this season, but the Falcons do have one thing going for them. Atlanta is at its best when running the ball and then getting big chunks of yards with play-action passes. Atlanta finished ninth in the league in rushing, while the Rams were 28th in run defense. Running back Devonta Freeman, one of the most punishing runners in the league, is banged up. If he misses any time or struggles, that will hurt the Falcons. They need him to run the ball well so it can open up the passing attack.
Atlanta isn't the dynamic offense it was in 2016, when the Falcons led the league in points scored under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan who is now the head coach of the 49ers. They haven't scored more than 24 points in a game since late November. That's hard to believe when you have a powerful running game, a veteran quarterback in Matt Ryan, and a dominant receiver in Julio Jones. The Falcons just aren't the same team this year and that could be an issue on Saturday. The Rams led the NFL in scoring and I would expect them to put plenty of points on the board.
It would be great to see the Falcons come away with the win this weekend. I think the Eagles match up well with them. Last year, the Eagles were the only team to slow that offense down. Atlanta lost in Philly by a score of 24-15. The Eagles' run defense is even better this year and I think that would make life pretty tough for Atlanta.
When the Rams lost this season, they averaged giving up more than 150 yards on the ground per game. Atlanta can pull off the upset if it can run the ball effectively. That is key for two reasons. First, it makes the passing game much more effective. It also keeps Jared Goff and the Rams' offense on the sideline watching. The Falcons won't win a shootout. They need to control the flow of the game and limit possessions for the Rams.
Aaron Donald is the defensive lineman who will get the most attention, but Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had a terrific season and has been dominant in recent weeks. He was outstanding in the playoff run last year. Jarrett is the kind of game-wrecker who could make some big plays and help the Falcons pull off the upset.
The other game could be wild. The Saints and Panthers both went 11-5 this year. New Orleans won the division because it swept the season series.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
There were times this year when the Saints looked like the best team in the league. They won eight straight games after starting 0-2. The question was whether the 8-2 Saints were better than the 9-1 Eagles.
New Orleans went 3-3 down the stretch but still managed to win the NFC South. They had some injury issues, but have a pretty healthy team right now.
Rookie Alvin Kamara is one of the most dynamic players in the league. He had more than 1,500 yards of total offense this year, caught 81 passes, and scored 14 total touchdowns. He should be the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
In the past, stopping the Saints meant stopping quarterback Drew Brees. That's no longer the case. You have to focus on their run game, with Mark Ingram and Kamara. They combined for 1,852 yards on the ground and 20 rushing touchdowns.
Now, Brees is still a very good quarterback. He is capable of making big plays and leading that offense up and down the field. As crazy as it sounds, you must focus on the backs and take your chances with Brees. Put on the tape and you'll see that the runners were the key to the offense this year.
The Panthers had no answer for the dynamic running duo in either game and that's why they got swept by New Orleans. Still, Carolina is capable of beating anyone. That defense can be dominant at times and Cam Newton is a big-time playmaker.
Newton struggled this year, throwing 16 interceptions and completing less than 60 percent of his passes. There were some issues with protection. He lost his favorite target, tight end Greg Olsen, for part of the year. You still expect someone with Newton's talent to play at a high level. He didn't.
Newton led the Panthers with 754 rushing yards. He ran for six touchdowns. While not his best, he still carried the offense this year. Newton led Carolina to wins over New England, Minnesota, and Atlanta, so he always gives them a chance to win. Newton is one of those rare guys who can burn you even when you have the perfect defense called.
The Saints shut down tight ends this year so Olsen may struggle to get open on Sunday. If so, the Panthers need a receiver to step up. Rookie Christian McCaffrey is really good out of the backfield, but he might not be enough.
Luke Kuechly remains the best linebacker in football. Kawaan Short is a highly disruptive defensive tackle. Julius Peppers had 11 sacks for the Panthers this year. That defense is vulnerable, but those playmakers make them dangerous.
New Orleans defense was middle of the pack this season. The Saints were at their best when rookie Marshon Lattimore was healthy. He emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in football. He picked off five passes in 13 starts. Defensive end Cameron Jordan was one of the best pass rushers in the league this year. He had 13 sacks and deflected 12 passes. That is incredibly impressive.
Kuechly and Newton will need to play at a high level for the Panthers to have any shot at the upset, but I expect the Saints to win the game.
In an ideal world, Atlanta and Carolina both pull off upsets. The Eagles beat Atlanta last year and Carolina this year. That doesn't guarantee anything but would help with confidence.
No matter how things shake out, it is fun that the Eagles are still in the hunt and focusing on football. In recent years, we were looking at potential free agents, draft prospects, or coaching candidates. It sure feels good to still be planning for meaningful football.