Look out, Ea­gles

Falcons ap­peared to be Su­per Bowl-ready last week

The Western Star - - SPORTS - BY BARRY WILNER

What Amer­ica saw last week­end from the At­lanta Falcons was sim­i­lar to what the team showed for 2 1/2 quar­ters of last year’s Su­per Bowl.

Can they keep it up as they head on the road again Satur­day to Philadel­phia?

The Falcons have that bal­anced of­fence - if Matt Ryan is ef­fi­cient - to chal­lenge any op­po­nents. Where they made their mark against the Rams was on de­fence.

“We don’t have a (com­pli­cated) de­fence, but we are very de­tailed,” says de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mar­quand Manuel, a former NFL player who got the job last Fe­bru­ary. “And the de­tail of ex­pec­ta­tions of un­der­stand­ing that they have to make our de­fence come to life, and they’re do­ing an awe­some job at it.”

Philadel­phia’s de­fence has been up and down re­cently, and it has dealt with a bunch of in­juries. Depth has been a plus for Jim Schwartz’s unit.

The edge here be­longs to At­lanta at quar­ter­back - if Ryan is ef­fi­cient - with backup Nick Foles run­ning the of­fence for the Ea­gles. It wouldn’t be shock­ing to see Foles fly. Or strug­gle.

The Falcons are 2-point favourites over the top-seeded Ea­gles, a highly un­usual oc­cur­rence. But one that, with Car­son Wentz on the side­line, makes enough sense.

FALCONS, 23-19

Ten­nessee (plus 13) at New Eng­land, Satur­day

The Pa­tri­ots are rested. They’re sup­pos­edly ticked off. They’re pretty healthy.

And they are miles than the Ti­tans. bet­ter

Still, let’s give Ten­nessee tremen­dous credit for how it ral­lied in Kansas City. The Ti­tans showed re­solve and an abil­ity to come up with big plays on of­fence that few ex­pected.

“You’ve got every team fight­ing to play for the next week,” Pa­tri­ots safety Devin McCourty says. “No­body’s go­ing to go out there - and I don’t care if you’re down, if you’re up - like no one is go­ing to quit. So, that’s some­thing I think we al­ways talk about, and ob­vi­ously you could see it in that game against Kansas City.”

But this one is in New Eng­land. Yes, it’s got­ten tire­some to travel (and travel, and travel) to Foxborough for play­off games. There’ll be an­other one up there next week­end. PA­TRI­OTS, 30-10

Jack­sonville (plus 7 1/2) at Pitts­burgh, Sun­day

One thing about the Steel­ers: They tend to play much closer games than they should. Based on tal­ent alone, they prob­a­bly are the NFL’s most skilled squad.

Here comes Jack­sonville, fol­low­ing an of­fen­sive stinker in beat­ing out­manned Buf­falo. Logic says this should be a rout.

For­get logic and re­mem­ber that Ben Roeth­lis­berger was so vic­tim­ized in a 30-9 Week 5 loss to the Jaguars that he had one of the worst games of his ca­reer.

There’s also the An­to­nio Brown fac­tor: How healthy is the unan­i­mous All-Pro re­ceiver, who was in­jured in Week 15?

Jack­sonville has a staunch de­fence with a ter­rific pass rush, too. Its sec­ondary is among the league’s best.

OK, enough of that. We can’t make a case for Blake Bor­tles win­ning in Pitts­burgh.

STEEL­ERS, 21-16

New Or­leans (plus 4) at Min­nesota, Sun­day

What fig­ures to be the best game of the di­vi­sional round, a re­dux of the Vik­ings’ 29-19 home vic­tory in the sea­son opener.

Both sides are bal­anced and have enough ex­pe­ri­ence to han­dle the pres­sure. While the Saints have the Hall of Famelevel skills of Drew Brees at quar­ter­back, Min­nesota’s Case Keenum has been among the most pleas­ant sur­prises in the league.

Look for this one to come down to which de­fence as­serts it­self. Coach Mike Zim­mer has built quite the unit in the Twin Cities.

“Well, you want to have pass rush­ers, you want to have guys that can cover,” he says. “With­out giv­ing away all my se­crets, I like a cer­tain body type with guys. You can kind of look at most of them and tell what we’re try­ing to get. Ath­leti­cism, guys who can think quickly on their feet, safeties that have ver­sa­til­ity, cor­ners who can cover.” Sounds like a win­ner. VIK­INGS, 20-17

AP PHOTO

At­lanta Falcons quar­ter­back Matt Ryan warms up be­fore Sun­day’s NFL wild-card play­off game against the Los An­ge­les Rams in Los An­ge­les.

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