2018-01-12 11:48:03
N.F.L. Playoffs: Eagles Are a Rare Top-Seeded Underdog

11:48, January 12 144 0

They tied for the best record in the N.F.L. They earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their defense gives opponents nightmares and they have an offense loaded with quality skill players. But the Philadelphia Eagles, despite having all that on their résumé, head into Saturday’s divisional round matchup against the Atlanta Falcons as 3-point underdogs.

If Carson Wentz’s impact as the team’s starting quarterback was not fully understood when he sustained the season-ending tear of his left anterior cruciate ligament, it certainly is now. Once Super Bowl favorites, the Eagles are now expected to lose against the bottom-seeded team in the N.F.C. playoffs, even at the friendly (to them) confines of Lincoln Financial Field.

A top seed losing in their first playoff game is not without precedent — it has happened nine times since the current playoff format was adopted in 2002 — but it would sting even more for the loss to come at the hands of the second wild-card team. That has happened just four times in those 15 seasons, most recently when the sixth-seeded Green Bay Packers beat the top-seeded Falcons after the 2010 season.

If Philadelphia becomes the fifth team to suffer such an ignominious fate, it will probably be the result of Nick Foles’s having taken over at quarterback for Wentz. A former starter, Foles has appeared to be on the verge of stardom several times in the past, and before Wentz went down he seemed like an ideal backup to have in the event of a catastrophic injury.

Despite Foles’ experience, and his 2-1 record over the final three weeks of the season, the people who set betting lines essentially declared Philadelphia’s record to be superficial in light of the fact that, with apologies to Wentz, the team’s once-mighty offense had been cut off at the knees.

Philadelphia had already secured home-field advantage before being shut out in Week 17 against Dallas, so an uninspired performance on that day can be excused. But to understand how little ball movement the Eagles generated under Foles, an instructive statistic is his adjusted yards per attempt, which accounts for the effect of interceptions. Among the 46 quarterbacks who attempted 50 or more passes this season, Foles’s adjusted average of 5.42 yards per attempt ranked 38th. His average was not only worse than that of every quarterback in the playoffs, but he also found himself ranked lower than players like Tom Savage, C.J. Beathard and Trevor Siemian, each of whom lost their starting jobs despite playing for non-contenders.

Coach Doug Pederson has tried to remain upbeat about Philadelphia’s ability to win without Wentz, and told reporters that getting a chance to go over film of Foles’s more successful stints in the past had given the team a blueprint for success.

“My message to Nick is, ‘Listen, you have a great opportunity. Just go be Nick. Go play. Let’s go execute the offense,’” Pederson said.

For Foles, that most likely means focusing on film from the 2013 season, when he burst onto the scene as an ideal fit with Coach Chip Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia. In 10 starts that year, Foles went 8-2, leading the N.F.L. with 10.54 adjusted yards per attempt. He threw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions, earning a Pro Bowl appearance and making people quickly forget Michael Vick, who had been ineffective earlier that season before a hamstring injury sent him to the bench.

Foles followed up his strong 2013 regular season with a decent showing in the playoffs — he threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns in a wild-card round loss to the New Orleans Saints — and he was 6-2 as a starter in 2014 before a broken collarbone ended his season.

That injury was just the first blow in a difficult three-year period: Foles was traded to St. Louis for Sam Bradford, lost his job with the Rams to Case Keenum, was signed as a backup for Kansas City in 2016 and then eventually came back to where he started in Philadelphia.

Still just 28, Foles may in fact have what it takes to succeed in the N.F.L. A few weeks of practice with the first-team offense could help shake off some rust, and he could emerge as a player capable of leading them in the playoffs. Or, even if he continues to struggle, Philadelphia could ride a great performance by its defense and its rushing attack and win in spite of him.

It is not that a healthy amount of skepticism is unwarranted based on Foles’s play thus far, but some Eagles, including starting right tackle Lane Johnson, consider their underdog status to be a huge motivational advantage.

“I think everybody perceives us as being the weakest and that is fine,” Johnson told reporters this week. “I think that is good. I think if teams want to overlook us, that is good. We’ll just see about Saturday.”

But the Falcons will have no shortage of motivation in their quest to topple the top team in their conference: Of the four No. 6 seeds to knock off the No. 1 seed since 2002, two of them went on to win the Super Bowl.