Saturday, December 5, 2009
Both the Eagles and Falcons are playoff caliber teams, but both are also severely weakened by injuries. Philadelphia currently holds the 1st Wild Card spot in the NFC, followed by the Packers. The Falcons sit one game back, tied with the Giants at 6-5. Accordingly, the game has significant playoff implications, but is somewhat overshadowed by the return of former Falcons quarterback, Michael Vick.
The outcome of tomorrow's game might hinge on which team is best able to overcome missing and injury compromised players. The Falcons will likely be without quarterback Matt Ryan, star running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Michael Jenkins, while their best wide receiver, Roddy White, will be less than 100% if he plays.
On the other side of the field, the Eagles will be without their top running back (Brian Westbrook) and wide receiver (DeSean Jackson), while tight end Brent Celek will be playing with a sprained thumb that caused him to drop passes last week. Also, they will once again be playing with a patchwork defense, including two starting corners that will play, but are hurting. Besides the players on "Injured Reserve", Akeem Jordan and Joselio Hanson will still be missing as well.
Veteran Chris Redman will start in Ryan's place, and played well in relief a week ago. Overall, he has been a solid player and should be able to take advantage of the Eagles weakened defense. He will not have the services of one of the top runners in the league as Turner aggravated an ankle injury, so Jason Snelling will get most of the carries. Jerious Norwood will likely play, but his normal explosiveness will be limited by his own lingering injury. Redman will primarily look for White and tight end Tony Gonzalez when he drops back to pass.
Once again, Donovan McNabb will be tested with a cast of relatively inexperienced players around him and if they hope to win, he will need to show the same veteran leadership that has been instrumental in the past two games. Rookie LeSean McCoy seems to get better as he gets more playing time under his belt, cutting off his blocks on runs and chipping pass rushers.
Both Jason Avant and Jeremy Maclin enter the game nursing injuries, but need to play and be an integral part of the offense. The little used Reggie Brown will get a lot of work as the third receiver as will back-up TE Alex Smith. Fortunately for the Eagles, McNabb is used to spreading the ball around and will not hesitate using any of his options.
Of course, the big story line is Vick's return to Atlanta, where he played for his first 6 years and led the Falcons to the NFC Championship game in 2004 before being convicted for running a dog fighting ring. Vick should not be much of a factor in the game, although the Eagles could conceivably make the mistake of playing him too much due to his ties with the Falcons. If Andy Reid is smart he will limit Vick and the Mildcat to its typical pair of carries for five yards and an incomplete pass so as not to disrupt too many drives.
Although both teams will be without key offensive weapons, expect the game to still be relatively high scoring. The capabilities of the offensive replacements, along with the play of each defense, should keep the ball moving down the field. Redman is a capable back-up and the Falcons will try to use their top two offensive weapons as much as possible. The Eagles have struggled to stop opposing tight ends all season, and with Jordan sidelined, Gonzalez is likely in for a huge day. Also, expect Redman to try to connect with White down the field.
The Eagles will counter with McCoy and Leonard Weaver sharing duties at running back and the usual large dose of passing. Expect both Avant and Maclin to have big games as McNabb will target a high percentage of passes in their direction due to Jackson's absence and Celek's injury. It would not be surprising to see Smith get more balls thrown his way while Celek is used as a decoy. McNabb will also use Brown, McCoy and Weaver to balance things out and keep the Falcons guessing.
Ultimately, the presence of McNabb along with the play of Avant, Maclin and McCoy should push the Eagles over the top. I see McNabb tossing a long TD to Maclin and a pair of the shorter variety to Avant. Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown will look to take advantage of Redman's rustiness, and one or both of them should pick off a pass to give the Eagles the turnover edge. Expect the Eagles to maintain a lead and have enough defense to hang on for victory.