NFC divisional round
Two huge upsets set up surprising Championship game
By Qassim Merali, Contributor
“Battle of the Birds”
Final Score: Eagles 15 – Falcons 10
The Philadelphia Eagles faced a hard challenge in their first playoff match-up, trying to stop a red-hot Atlanta Falcons team that seems to be hitting their stride when the games matter most.
With or without MVP candidate Carson Wentz, this Falcons team would have challenged the Eagles, but after losing their signal-caller to a torn ACL, this Philly team sits as underdogs despite boasting the number one seed in the NFC playoffs.
The Eagles Short Game
Following Nick Foles’ duck of a pass, running back Jay Ajayi’s first carry ensued — ending in a lost fumble to a swarming Falcons defence. A worrying sign that Philadelphia’s opening drive would be revealing an anemic offense for their most meaningful game of the season.
The sad truth is that the Eagles’ attack was really bad during an incredibly windy game, in which both quarterbacks struggled to control the ball down field with Foles especially showing a complete lack of arm strength.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan showed the world why he is clearly more comfortable running his offence from the safety of the Falcons dome.
While the Eagles did everything they needed to do to win the game after a slow start laden with turnovers and mistakes, the Falcons did everything they could to hand it to them.
It’s abundantly clear that Foles couldn’t pass the ball further than five yards down the field yet the Falcons respected the deep ball giving them space to work underneath all game long.
Yes, head coach Doug Pederson has done a great job creating a variety of looks but at the end of the day the Eagles can only do three things: run the ball, throw a screen pass, or toss a short pass. The space that they have to defend ranges no further than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and yet Foles has repeatedly carved them up with three routes: the quick outs, slants and curls. If I was their defensive coordinator I would be livid at their lack of awareness.
Even with the wind at his back, Foles doesn’t have the confidence to make the throws one would expect a NFL quarterback to make, taking checkdowns with targets running open downfield.
The Eagles Defence
The Eagles defenders deserve all the praise they recieve, keeping their team in the game they pressured Matt Ryan all game long pulling three sacks, particularly on key third downs preventing a 14-point swing at half time by stopping the Falcons before and after the second quarter.
Despite the good things the Eagles defence does, Atlanta once again, shot themselves in the foot. Knowing that Ryan would struggle to find consistency in his touch on the ball when coping with the wind the importance of the running game mounts in games like these.
Facing the number one ranked Eagles run defence which only gives up an average of 79.2 yards per game, Atlanta seems content on splitting touches between the dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Coleman simply provides a better matchup against the Eagles defenders, putting up 79 yards off of a conservative 10 carries while running mate Freeman rushed 10 times himself for an underwhelming seven total yards.
By half-time it should be simple, when Freeman gets a carry against this defence it is a waste of a down, and yet the stubborn Falcons play callers continue to feed their most ineffective player. Especially with Coleman making explosive plays every time he touches the ball.
All of the mistakes led to a final drive for a desperate Atlanta team down 15-10. Moving the ball effectively down-field all the way to the goal line the Falcons playoff hopes are riding on the right arm of Ryan.
With two yards separating the Falcons from certain victory, Atlanta opted to put the ball in the hands of Ryan on their final offensive play. Rolling to the right to avoid the Eagles pass rush he floated a ball up to the most reliable playmaker available, jumping for the ball over cornerback Jalen Mills was of course, all-pro pass catcher Julio Jones fighting valiantly for what was to be one of the most important passes thrown to him in his career.
As if it all happened in slow motion the ball slightly too high slips through the hands of a well-covered Jones, a devastating way to lose the football game. I don’t remember the last time a top seeded team was the underdog, highlighted by Eagles offensive lineman Lane Johnson putting on a dog mask after the clock struck all zeros as a final screw you to all the media and analysts who counted them out.
“The Saints Almost Go Marching In”
Final Score: Vikings 29 – Saints 24
For those who of you who took the time to watch the final divisional game of the weekend, you were rewarded with what will go down as one of the most spectacular games of football in NFL history.
Some may recall the week one loss the New Orleans Saints took to the Minnesota Vikings but both of these teams offer very different looks this time around. Evolving into what one might consider their finest form yet, the teams share a very different group of stars and starters this time around.
The sluggish Saints slip, causing them to fall into a 17-point deficit by half time. This truly is a tale of two halves — however — seemingly the start of a blow-out, the narrative quickly shifts to a competitive battle until the literal last second of the game.
Act One, “The First Half”
Minnesota dominates the first half scoring 17 unanswered points. Utilizing their running backs early and often the Vikings set up a balanced attack, forcing the Saints to respect their run-game for almost the entirety of the match.
The Vikings endured a similar situation against the Saints number-one pass catcher Michael Thomas, who saw attention from all-pro Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
With the first half belonging to the Vikings, Rhodes got the better of Thomas when matched up one on one.
Staying true to the game plan of two deep shots a quarter, Drew Brees takes his first, grossly under throwing a wide open Ted Ginn who’s gotten behind the defence and would likely have taken the ball in for a score.
Act Two, “The Second Half”
With the first possession to start the second half, the Saints march down the field with a balanced attack. Hitting the Vikings red zone, safety Andrew Sendejo goes down with an injury.
Taking advantage of the loss of coverage ability found in the falling of Sendejo the Saints score their first touchdown of the game with a pass to Thomas on Rhodes who gets caught letting his emotions run hot, he blamed Thomas for injuring his teammate.
Following a pair of touches by rookie runner Alvin Kamara for a first down, all-pro cornerback Rhodes goes down with an injury of his own.
Following the injury to Rhodes the Saints make quick work of the Vikings defence throwing a slant to Thomas for his second score of the game; a touchdown that might not have come so easily had Rhodes been in his place shadowing the opposing number one receiver.
Capitalizing with a touchdown off of the only Vikings turn over, New Orleans charges right back into the game erasing 14 points from the Vikings lead.
Responding well to the adversity, Murray opens up the drive with a physical run for 14 yards, after a carry for no gain, Viking quarterback Case Keenum shows that he remains unshaken by the interception dropping a 27 yard touch-pass into the hands of Jarius Wright.
Making a questionable call Saints coach Sean Payton throws the challenge flag in hopes that he could push the Vikings out of field goal range, losing his second challenge of the drive and costing his team their second timeout of the second half, quite a few “seconds” occur on this drive.
Taking his second attempt from 49 yards Forbath nails his kick putting the vikings up by six.
Going three-and-out, the Saints have a big chance on third and one with when a screen to wide receiver Willie Snead turns into a trick passing play, with a wide open Kamara screaming up the sideline Snead overthrows him on what could have been the play of the game.
The ensuing Vikings drive ends in a blocked punt and making the most of the excellent field position fo the Saints’ quarterback who goes a perfect three for three gaining 38 yards and a touchdown, giving the Saints their first lead of the game.
Down one with three minutes left the Vikings have to score on this drive.
One of the biggest plays comes from a surprisingly well thrown ball off of Keenum’s back foot giving all-pro wide receiver Adam Thielen a chance to “Moss” cornerback Marshon Lattimore despite blatant pass interference.
The Saints defence stops the Vikings drive making it end with yet another clutch field goal by former Saints kicker Kai Forbath.
Now the Saints have 1:29 left on the clock and one timeout remaining, losing two due to head coach Sean Payton’s laissez-faire use of their challenge flag.
The fate of the Saints season rests on the arm of Brees, a tall task considering how hard it is to move the ball on the Vikings defence when your offence is one dimensional.
Facing 4th-and-10 with 45 seconds to go, Brees stands and delivers to Snead, getting out of bounds and stopping the clock at the Minnesota 33-yard line.
With 25 seconds, kicker Will Lutz knocks down a 43-yarder to make the score 24-23 for the Saints.
Beginning the drive with a false start the Vikings have to take their final timeout after a completion over the middle to Stefon Diggs.
The Vikings take their last shot on a deep out route to Diggs, a throw in the highest degree of difficulty proving Case Keenum can sling it with the best of them.
With the original intention of going out of bounds to set up his team for a field goal, Diggs spins around to see no defenders standing between him and the end zone.
Rookie safety Marcus Williams had the chance to make the tackle and end the game but going for the big hit when he should have played it conservative, the flying safety whiffs on the tackle, clearing the way for a touchdown that will go down in NFL history.
Up 29-24 with the clock reading 0:00, the Vikings still have the formality of kicking the extra point, a process that was delayed due to the entire Saints team heading off to the locker room and bodies flooding the field in celebration.
After a spectacular weekend for football this is one hell of a way to end the divisional round of the NFL playoffs coming up are the NFC and AFC championship games where the final four will play for a chance to appear in the super bowl.