NFL Week 1 Pick: Atlanta Falcons vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Falcons (2017: 11-7 SU, 8-10 ATS) vs. Eagles (2017: 16-3 SU, 13-6 ATS)
Date/Time: Thursday September 6, 8:20 PM EST
Where: Lincoln Financial Field
by Keith Allen, Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: Atl +4 / Phil -4
Over/Under Total: 46.5
Carson Wentz’s Health
The Eagles will begin their title defense to kick off the 2018 NFL season on September 6 at The Linc against the Atlanta Falcons. This is a rematch from the Division round in last year’s playoffs when the Eagles upset the Falcons 15-10 in Philly. The Falcons were favored by 3 with Nick Foles starting behind center and Carson Wentz out with a knee injury. The Eagles trailed at halftime 10-9 but managed 2 second half field goals to advance to the NFC Championship game. The 25 points was well under the 41 over/under total.
At this writing in late July, with training camps just getting started, Wentz is expected to play in week 1. He tore multiple ligaments in his left knee in early December which will put him at 10 months of recovery time. This injury has an expected recovery time of 9-12 months so it’s a little aggressive for Wentz to be 100% for this game.
Can the Falcons Execute Under Pressure?
When Atlanta has the ball, quarterback Matt Ryan will look to spread it around to Julio Jones and his other playmakers. The Falcons were 9th in passing last year and only 13th in rushing despite their running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman being one of the best in the league. Rookie first round selection Calvin Ridley is added to Ryan’s bevy of weapons and will be one additional headache for Eagles D Coordinator Jim Schwartz. The Eagles defense was 4th in points allowed last year, first against the run but only 17th against the pass. Philly’s defense has swapped out some players on their line and may be more vulnerable to the run this year. The key when the Dirty Birds have the ball will be their success on 3rd down. They were 9th in the league last year on 3rd down but the Eagles defense was 3rd in the league last year at shutting opponents down on the money down. The Falcons only converted 30% of 3rd downs in last year’s playoff game and they will need to improve that stat to pull the upset.
The Eagles Ground Game Will Be Tested
When Philly has the ball, Wentz will be working with most of the same skill players that put up the 3rd most points in the league in ‘17. The receiving corps was very balanced with 3 receivers logging over 50 catches. Tight end Zach Ertz is the go-to guy and will look to pick up where he left of last year with 72 receptions and 8 touchdowns. The Eagles finished 3rd in rushing last year but Jay Ajai will have to be more of a workhorse in ‘18 after LeGarrette Blount left in free agency. Darren Sproles returns and Corey Clement will continue to be a Joker type player providing a spark to the offense when needed. Atlanta’s defense was 8th in points allowed and very balanced against both the run and pass. In last year’s playoff game, the Eagles struggled to run the ball but Foles moved the offense through the air.
Can Wentz Run the Ball?
There is no doubt the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field will be raucous and adrenaline will be pumping through the veins of the Eagles. This happens every year in this kick off game. But this advantage has not translated into success for the defending champs. Over the last 5 season openers, the defending champs are 3-2 straight up and 2-3 against the spread. Philly had the best record ATS last year at 13-6. The +3 line sportsbooks closed in last year’s Division game had the Eagles playing the “no respect” card for extra motivation. Starting on September 6 the Eagles’ 16 opponents will be motivated to beat the reigning super bowl champs. The line implies that Wentz will play in the game and be close to 100%. Part of what made Wentz so effective last year was his willingness and effectiveness running from the pocket. Last year he ran 64 times for 299 yards and was injured on run number 64. It will be interesting to see how willing Wentz is to take off from the pocket as his knee recovers.
Week 1 Pick
I like the Falcons in this game, especially with some uncertainty about Wentz. Reports on Wentz are that he is ahead of schedule but the proof of him being ready both physically and mentally is live game action. Wentz will probably not play in any of the pre-season games so we will not see him in game action before this week 1 contest. If he does get pre-season action it will be safe plays away from any possible contact. Assuming Wentz suits up against Atlanta, it’s hard to know how he will react in game situations when 300 pound linemen are falling around his knees. If Wentz doesn’t play week 1, the line will move close to a pick-em. Foles was great in the last two games last year and played well against the Falcons but don’t buy the talk that he is anywhere close to the same player as Wentz. The Falcons offense should improve especially on third down and in the red zone (23rd in red zone efficiency last year) in the second year of Steve Sarkisian’s offense. In a game that should be close, getting the Falcons plus more than a field goal is the right play.
Play the Falcons and play them soon. If Wentz were to get ruled out of the game, look to play the Falcons on the money line. I would also lean under the 46.5 under total as I expect both teams to play on the conservative side.