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Falcons vs. Eagles preview: 5 questions, 5 answers about Atlanta’s Week 1 opponent

Get to know the Eagles with Brandon Gowton from Bleeding Green Nation!

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

We asked Brandon Gowton, the amiable Eagles fan and Bleeding Green Nation manager you all remember from his humble (and as it turns out, happily inaccurate for Philly fans) predictions for the Divisional Round game last year. In between celebrating a Super Bowl victory and gearing up for Thursday night’s game, Gowton was kind enough to share his thoughts on the game ahead with us.

Wentz & Foles

Dave Choate: The status of Carson Wentz seems critical, as good as the Eagles roster is. When do you expect him back, and can Nick Foles keep up his magical recent run in the meantime? I’m not going to be guilty of underestimating him or the Eagles again.

Brandon Gowton: To be honest, I expected Carson Wentz to play Week 1. Reports from as far back as January indicated the Eagles thought he’d have a chance to play in the season opener. I saw no reason not to believe this reporting after watching all of his practices throughout the spring and summer. I think the Eagles are just legitimately being extra careful with him, which I can’t fault them for. I tend to think we might see Wentz back in Week 3 since Peter King recently threw that date out there. But who knows for sure at this point.

Can Nick Foles keep up his magical run? I do think he’s capable of doing so, yes. But I also think it’s entirely possible he doesn’t play well. Foles stunk it up in the preseason this year by going 16 of 26 for 171 yards, zero touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 48.7 passer rating (not to mention two fumbles lost). In fairness to the reigning Super Bowl MVP, he didn’t have a strong supporting cast considering a number of offensive starters weren’t playing. And it’s not like Doug Pederson was heavily game-planning the preseason.

The reality is that Foles is just a high variance player. Foles has 18 starts with a passer rating over 100. He has 16 starts with a passer rating below 80. Only eight of his starts have fallen between that range. Eagles fans will hope to see Good Foles (and not Bad Foles) show up on Thursday night.

Personally, Foles seems always seems to play his best when I doubt him, so maybe I should continue to keep that strategy going and try to motivate him. :)

Ajayi, Clement & Sproles

Dave Choate: There’s quite a bit of talent at the running back position, but I’m curious as to how you think snaps are going to shake out. Will Ajayi dominate touches or will Clement be heavily involved in the passing game?

Brandon Gowton: I do think Ajayi will take a bulk of the Eagles’ carries. He’s going to be a free agent after this season and it doesn’t seem likely the Eagles will be retain him due to their cap situation. So why not ride him hard this year? Ajayi did average 5.8 yards per carry with the Eagles in the regular season last year. He has the potential to be very effective behind an offensive line that returns all five starters from last year.

I will add that I don’t think Ajayi will dominate all the running back touches. Darren Sproles and Corey Clement are better options as third down backs. I think Clement could especially play a factor in the red zone. Those guys are going to get mixed into the game plan. They can also spell Ajayi when necessary.

Jordan Mailata

Dave Choate: So we’ve all heard about Jordan Mailata at this point, and it’s a hell of a story. What’s his upside, and is there any chance we’ll see him during this first game with the injuries Philly’s dealing with?

Brandon Gowton: It’s really incredible that a dude who hadn’t even played a football game in his entire life until last month made the Eagles’ 53-man roster. And really, he earned his spot on the team.

Former NFL offensive linemen have been absolutely raving about this 21-year-old mammoth who measures in at 6-8, 350 pounds. Brian Baldinger said “he’s taken a thousand light years of steps in four months.” Ross Tucker said Mailata is going to be an All-Pro. Football scout/writer Tommy Lawlor said Mailata already reminds him of sure-fire future Hall of Famer Jason Peters.

The feeling here is that Mailata still has a long way to go before he’s ever going to see meaningful playing time, but his progress has been nothing short of remarkable.

Mailata is likely to be inactive on game day for the entire season. He still has a lot to learn and the Eagles have a number of players who are ahead of him at tackle on their depth chart. The hope is he can continue to learn and eventually be Peters’ replacement. Peters turns 37 in January.

What the Falcons should attack

Dave Choate: Defensively, what should the Falcons be looking to attack? Atlanta had virtually no luck on offense against Philadelphia less than a year ago, so I’m wondering what has changed.

Brandon Gowton: If I’m the Falcons, I’m looking to see if I can get Tevin Coleman going. He had 10 carries for 79 yards (plus one reception for 14) against the Eagles earlier this year. Compare that to Devonta Freeman’s 10 carries for seven yards. If I recall correctly, he had some success on runs to the outside. The Eagles will be without starting linebacker Nigel Bradham so they could look to test the likes of new starting linebackers Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nathan Gerry.

I’d also be looking to test the Eagles in the slot. The Eagles’ starting cornerbacks (Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby) have had very good offseasons but 2017 second-round pick Sidney Jones is new to playing the slot. He had some good moments this summer but this is also going to be his first real season and I think he could be prone to making some mistakes. If I’m the Falcons, I’m looking to mix Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones in the slot to test Jones.

Dave Choate: A classic: How do you expect this game to turn out, and what are your expectations for the season? Can this Eagles team repeat as Super Bowl champions, and will they?

Brandon Gowton: I genuinely can’t believe the season is here already. I feel like I was just in Minnesota watching the Eagles beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. I almost don’t even feel ready to turn the page on last year.

But alas, I must. I don’t think I have a great feel for this game yet. I don’t feel ready to pick against the Super Bowl champs just yet. But the Eagles do have a number of players coming off injury and I could see them having somewhat of a physical hangover. I just can’t help but wonder if the Falcons are going to come in pissed off and really want this game more than the Eagles want it.

Then again, the Eagles are 15-3 at home in the Doug Pederson era, and one of those losses was when the starters didn’t play in Week 17 last year. Philadelphia still has a lot of talent on their roster even though they’ll be missing Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, and Timmy Jernigan.

I’ll be boring and say this is another game that comes down to the wire. I’ll take the Eagles to win in a close one, 28 to 27.

As far as my season expectations go, I think this is still a double-digit win team. This team might be due for a slow start but I think they’ll start to hit their stride eventually. I just believe in Carson Wentz’s ability and Doug Pederson’s coaching too much to think otherwise.

This Eagles team CAN repeat as Super Bowl champions. I mean, they won it all last year despite not even having the likes of Wentz, Peters, Sproles, Jordan Hicks, and Chris Maragos suit up for them in the big game. They may be uniquely qualified to do something that’s only been accomplished once before in the salary cap era.

But it certainly won’t be easy. The NFL is just such a year-to-year league. Heck, there hasn’t even been a repeat NFC East champion since 2004.

We know this Eagles team has a high ceiling. It’s just a matter of if they can reach their potential.