By Matt Citak
With Wild Card Weekend in the rear view mirror, we now turn our attention to the NFC Divisional Round, where the Philadelphia Eagles will host the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday, while the New Orleans Saints travel to U.S. Bank Stadium to take on the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
The Falcons are coming off an impressive win over the Rams in Los Angeles last weekend. Matt Ryan completed 70 percent of his passes for 218 yards and a touchdown, and Matt Bryant connected on all four of his field goal attempts, including two from 50+ yards, to help lead the Falcons to a 26-13 victory. Ryan is averaging 258.8 yards in his last four contests, and has thrown a touchdown pass in each of those games while tossing just one interception during that same span. While Atlanta's offense seems to garner most of the attention, it is the defense that has been most impressive this season. The Falcons "D" enters this Divisional Round matchup ranked within the top-10 in the NFL in total yards allowed per game (318.4), rushing yards allowed per game (104.1) and points allowed per game (19.7).
Despite being the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the game taking place at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles find themselves as the underdogs leading up to Saturday's matchup against the Falcons. The biggest reason for this is the play of quarterback Nick Foles, who became the starting QB once Carson Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14, over the last few weeks of the regular season. Foles threw for 237 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in his first start of the year in Week 15, but it came against the New York Giants and their dismal defense. The 28-year-old QB was able to complete just 50.0 percent of his passes for 163 yards, one touchdown, and one interception against the Oakland Raiders the following week, and closed out the regular season with a 4-for-11 performance against the Dallas Cowboys, in which he threw for only 39 yards with an interception. Philadelphia will need Foles to play like he did in 2013 (27 touchdowns, two interceptions) if they want to have a chance at beating the Falcons on Saturday.
Elsewhere in the NFC, the Saints were able to pick up their third victory of the season over their NFC South rival Carolina Panthers on Sunday. New Orleans rode the play of future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for 376 yards (with a 69.7 completion percentage) with two touchdowns and an interception, to a 31-26 win at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Despite the Saints ranking fifth in rushing yards per game (129.4) and second in rushing yards per attempt (4.7) during the regular season, running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combined to carry the ball 19 times for just 45 yards against Carolina, good for 2.4 yards per attempt. Ingram and Kamara will have their hands full this weekend as they attempt to find running room against the Vikings and their No. 2 ranked rushing defense.
A week after allowing Cam Newton to throw for 349 yards and two touchdowns, New Orleans will have to try to limit this year's biggest Cinderella story, Case Keenum. Keenum took the reigns as Minnesota's starting quarterback after Sam Bradford hurt his knee following their Week 1 victory over the Saints, and hasn't looked back since. The journeyman QB completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns, and seven interceptions in 15 games this year, helping lead the Vikings to a 13-3 record and the NFC's No. 2 seed. While Keenum has looked surprisingly strong throughout the season, it is Minnesota's defense that has truly stood out. The Vikings defense, led by Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, and Everson Griffen, averaged an NFL-best 15.8 points allowed per game. Minnesota also ranked first in total yards allowed (275.9) and second in passing yards allowed (192.4) and rushing yards allowed per game (83.6). The Saints and their elite offense going up against the Vikings and their stellar defense should be a wildly entertaining, back-and-forth affair.
THE NFL TODAY and INSIDE THE NFL analyst Boomer Esiason weighed in on this weekend's NFC Divisional Round matchups.
Esiason, along with Ray Lewis, Phil Simms, and James Brown break down this and other NFL storylines all season long each Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime's Inside The NFL.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Philadelphia Eagles - 4:35 PM ET Saturday
CBS Local Sports: What will Matt Ryan have to do in the passing game to get the Falcons back in the NFC Championship?
Boomer Esiason: At the end of the day, just don't turn the ball over and don't give Nick Foles a short field. Foles has really struggled offensively with the Philadelphia offense. The Eagles are going to try to make a living on turnovers. That's how they're going to have to win. If Matt Ryan doesn't turn the football over, and plays like he played against the Los Angeles Rams, then it's definitely going to be a tough day for the Philadelphia Eagles.
CBS Local Sports: How will being the underdogs at home as the No. 1 seed motivate the Eagles?
Boomer Esiason: Fletcher Cox and the boys are upset by that. They have a chip on their shoulder. In the psychology of football, from high school to college, all the way into the pros, coaches are always looking for an edge to get their players on edge to make sure they play at a very high level. The Philadelphia Eagles being the number one seed in the NFC, and now finding themselves as an underdog, is the perfect psychological ploy for head coach Doug Pederson. They'll be ready to play, there's no question about that. Their defense will always be ready to play. The question is whether or not Nick Foles can make those key third down throws to keep the drives alive, to keep the ball on their side, and then not turn the ball over himself. He's been shaky the last couple weeks, and that's why most people think they are vulnerable at home in this game.
New Orleans Saints vs. Minnesota Vikings - 4:40 PM ET Sunday
CBS Local Sports: Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara couldn't get anything going against Carolina last week. How will New Orleans establish the run game against Minnesota's stout run defense on Sunday?
Boomer Esiason: Minnesota has one of the best defenses in the NFL. They have been the most consistent team in football outside of the Patriots. They have been steady. They have absorbed a backup quarterback in Case Keenum. They found a tremendous wide receiver in Adam Thielen. But the reason they have been good is because of the run defense. Minnesota also found so much success because of the three levels of defense and the players that they have there, whether that be Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith [in the secondary], Anthony Barr and his cast of linebackers, or Everson Griffen and that defensive line with Linval Joseph. This is a team that is destined for the Super Bowl, which would make them the first ever Super Bowl team to play in their own stadium. They are going to be difficult to beat there. Mike Zimmer is a terrific football coach, and if there's a guy that can stop Drew Brees, it's Mike Zimmer and his defense.
CBS Local Sports: What part of the Saints defense should Case Keenum and the Vikings offense try to exploit in this Divisional Round matchup?
Boomer Esiason: The Saints have a young secondary, and that young secondary is very active and very good. It's one of the reasons why they are where they are. These two teams played in Week 1, but it's a totally different set of circumstances now. Dennis Allen, the defensive coordinator of the Saints, has actually simplified his defense since Week 1, and the Saints have taken to it. You have to run the ball on the Saints. You have to control Cameron Jordan in the middle of that defensive line. Then you have to take your shots down the field. Kyle Rudolph could be the difference in this game. A stout tight end with two really good wide receivers puts pressure on the internal secondary of that defense, and that's where the weakness may lie.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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