The lone undefeated team in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons, visit Philadelphia for an avian encounter that highlights the Week 8 NFC slate. After two close calls against lesser teams, the Falcons enjoyed a week off and will now start their second half drive for the postseason against an Eagles team searching for answers.
This will be Philadelphia's first game with new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles at the helm, as Andy Reid dismissed Juan Castillo at the start of Philadelphia's bye week. The move was largely portrayed as a scapegoating, with the Eagles offensive struggles prompting more questions through the first six weeks of the season. After suffering two straight losses and dropping to .500, it's a crucial home game for Reid against the NFC elite.
Meet the Eagles
Save for a blowout loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Eagles have repeatedly found themselves in tight games down the stretch. The season started with Michael Vick and the offense being able to put Philly on the right side of those close games, but they've blown fourth quarter leads in back-to-back losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions.
Reid hopes the extra week off will right the ship for the second half of the season. In his lengthy 14-year tenure with the Eagles, he has never lost coming off a bye. Beyond an improved defense under Bowles, he'll need the offense to start living up to its explosive potential.
Turnovers, particularly by Vick, have cost the Philly offense and consistently kept opponents in games. The quarterback has also struggled against his former team, and the multitude of giveaways has prompted Reid to give lukewarm answers about Vick's status as the starter going forward. Rookie Nick Foles was impressive in the preseason, and there's been speculation that Reid won't hesitate to go to the backup if Vick continues to struggle.
One way Vick and the offense can start rolling is by handing it off to running back LeSean McCoy. The reigning NFL rushing touchdown leader has also hit some bumps in the early part of the 2012 season, finding the end zone only once so far. His offensive line was ravaged with injuries and it's been difficult to find running room at times. But he's still one of the most talented backs in the league, and facing the 28th-ranked rush defense, it wouldn't be a bad idea for the Eagles to feed McCoy early.
Meet the Falcons
The Falcons are now in the fifth year with Mike Smith and Matt Ryan at the helm, and they're attempting to make the jump this season from playoff team to Super Bowl contender. They've racked up wins in the previous four seasons, but were fringe contenders and did not win a postseason game.
Ryan has full control of the offense this season, leading a unit that's stepped up the pace and given the quarterback the ability to make all calls at the line, both in and out of the no-huddle. His weapons on the outside are among the best in the game, with the reliable Roddy White leading the team in receiving and Julio Jones emerging as an elite receiver in his second season. White, Jones, and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez all have four touchdown catches apiece this season as Ryan spreads it around.
But while the Falcons remain undefeated, they've narrowly escaped in their past three games against lesser opponents. Ryan looked shaky in a three-point win over the Oakland Raiders, facing pressure all day and throwing three interceptions. He's a Philly native who returns home to play in front of family and friends, but that doesn't mean the Lincoln Financial Field crowd will greet him warmly. Facing a desperate Eagles team who's also coming off a bye, it will be one of their toughest tests of the second half of the season. A win could cement their status as a favorite in the NFC.
Local Takes: Eagles
Eliot Shorr Parks of Bleeding Green Nation looks at what's made Reid so successful after the bye week during his time with the Eagles:
The Eagles turnover problem is the one thing fans point to when they predict Reid to get his first loss after a bye week this upcoming Sunday against Atlanta. But one of the main reasons Reid has been so successful after the bye? His team has cut down on turnovers.
In the 13 games the Eagles have played after a bye week with Andy Reid as head coach, they have won the turnover battle in nine of them. They have tied the other team in turnovers in three of them, and lost the turnover battle just once. Overall, Reid's team is 9-1-3 in the turnover battle in games following a bye.
Local Takes: Falcons
This will be a battle between the Falcons first-year offensive coordinator and Eagles first-week defensive coordinator. Dave Choate of The Falcoholic examines what Dirk Koetter can do against Bowles:
The Eagles' will probably still trot out some variation of their nine wide defense, which allows for pressure from all over the field. The Falcons can counter that with short pass plays and power runs to get after some of the Eagles' smallish defensive linemen, especially when the blitz is evident from one side or the other. Keeping Ryan on his feet while Trent Cole and Jason Babin attempt to wreak havoc won't be easy, but it he can pull it off the Falcons should be able to dictate the flow of the game.
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Depending on which Eagles team shows up, this could be one of the better games of the week. Andy Reid sacrificed Juan Castillo last week, but the Eagles still have all kinds of problems, including an offense averaging almost three turnovers a game. Atlanta's defense just so happens to average the same number of takeaways.
The pick: 21-17, Falcons
The Eagles opened as 2.5 points favorites but that has moved both up and down as the week progressed, with many books settling with Philly as field-goal favorites.
The Eagles will have a long week, heading to New Orleans for a game against the Saints on Monday Night Football. The Falcons will stay in the NFC East, hosting the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9.