The Falcons and Eagles meet Sunday, and it’ll be a battle between two teams with first-year head coaches and plenty of offseason upheaval between them. As is our custom, let’s take a closer look at the matchup from an Eagles-centric lens and see just how much this week’s opponent has changed heading into 2021.
The very short version: The Eagles don’t have the markings of a great team or anywhere close to one, but they could be more interesting than I would’ve guessed pre-Carson Wentz trade.
Normally, I’d put the 2020 rankings side-by-side here, but I’m not sure they’re going to prove to be all that relevant. Atlanta was a roiling, bubbling mess of a team in the first five games and never really got their footing on offense last season, and while their defense stabilized and was even an asset at times down the stretch, I’m going to need to see that translate under Dean Pees before I relax. The Falcons, either way, figure to be a different team in 2021.
The Eagles are going to be even more of a different team, as we’ll get to in a moment. Their weird quarterback controversy is over, assuming Gardner Minshew doesn’t jorts his way back into it at some point this season, and a fresh start with the coaching staff and quarterback ought to have them looking different enough
Neither team is necessarily going to be drastically better, mind you, but I don’t know how instructive last year’s results are for either team. I’m more interested to see where the Falcons are in a week’s time.
How the Eagles have changed in 2021
Only a handful of other teams changed as much as Philadelphia. The Lions, who swapped out a front office, coaching staff and franchise quarterback, are the only one that changed more.
The Eagles shipped Carson Wentz out of town after years of diminishing returns, turning to Jalen Hurts in his stead. Doug Pederson is gone, replaced by Nick Sirianni (a Frank Reich disciple the same way Reich was a Pederson disciple) as the team’s new head coach. The only thing that didn’t change significantly—and plenty of Philly fans seemed unhappy about this—is the front office, which has been grinding a Super Bowl-caliber roster to dust for the past few years.
While that’s not going to be fixed in a year, I do have to give the Eagles kudos for a strong offseason. DeVonta Smith’s weight concerns are legitimate as far as they go—there are not a ton of receivers sitting at 170 pounds who are putting up #1 option numbers in the NFL—but he’s also a tremendous talent and the Eagles are starved for that in their receiving corps. Landon Dickerson is a nasty, powerful lineman the team hopes will be the heir apparent at center in the near future. The rest of their class was loaded with needed upside, and those who saw me stumping for Kenneth Gainwell before the draft know that I think he can be a tremendous asset at running back, particularly as a pass catcher. Even if only Smith, Dickerson and one of those swings for the fences works out, it’ll be a better track record than the Eagles have managed in a bit.
They lost more players than they added in free agency, but the players they lost were by and large on the down sides of their careers or not particularly high upside guys, like Malik Jackson along the defensive line and Duke Riley at linebacker. Jalen Mills was a good enough cornerback to lament his loss, but the team adding top safety Anthony Harris to the mix by itself probably puts them in a better spot than they were in a year ago. Adding Steven Nelson, a cornerback I had hoped the Falcons might be able to pursue, is another win.
I’m probably higher on Hurts at quarterback than a lot of folks outside of Philadelphia, and perhaps even some within Philly. He has the arm talent, smarts and mobility to be a successful starter, especially if the line and supporting cast live up to their promise here, and he’s unquestionably an upgrade over the shell of Carson Wentz the Eagles were turning to in recent years. I don’t expect him to be great, but he can be at worst solid, and a team that
Nobody knows what kind of coach Sirianni is going to be, though he was the Colts offensive coordinator for longer than Arthur Smith was with the Titans. The role he occupied was more similar to what Dave Ragone is doing in Atlanta in terms of setting the gameplan rather than calling the plays, but the Frank Reich stamp of approval was presumably good enough for a Philly power structure that still loves their former offensive coordinator.
What to know for Sunday
The Eagles are one of the more straightforward matchups on the schedule for the Falcons. They still have a terrific offensive line—David Walker will get into that a bit more in his Atlanta defense versus Philadelphia offense matchup later today—and their defensive front can give teams fits alongside what certainly looks like an improved secondary. Even though I like Hurts, though, he’s not lining up to be an elite quarterback, they don’t have any proven tremendous receivers, the running back group is full of complementary players rather than standout ones, and the linebacker group looks shaky on paper. If that sounds like a harsh criticism, well, I’m standing in a glass house and you can weigh that accordingly.
Like the Falcons, the Eagles ought to be an improved football team in 2021, if not a greatly improved one. As time has gone on, I’ve become less confident of Atlanta’s ability to run away with this one, even though I still think it’s a very winnable game. Philadelphia’s tough line is going to give the Falcons’ offensive line fits, their secondary is good enough on paper to make life tougher for everyone not named Kyle Pitts and Calvin Ridley, and the offense is at least intriguing enough to put up a good fight against what promises to be an aggressive Falcons defense. There are a lot of unknowns with both teams just days before the season begins, but I think you can expect the Falcons to try to lean heavily on Mike Davis and the mismatch nightmare Pitts affords offensively and a pass rush Pees and company will hope can rattle Hurts into making costly mistakes. That feels like a recipe for winning this one—again, I think the Falcons are good enough as constructed to win—but there are baked-in assumptions about the effectiveness of the starting defense in particular that we need to see borne out.
The Eagles are much more interesting than I thought they’d be early in the offseason. That plus our ongoing uncertainty about what we can reasonably expect from this Falcons team makes this an intriguing opening matchup. I wouldn’t take Philadelphia too lightly, which in turn means a first week win would be a nice confidence booster for a team and fanbase that need it.