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NFL Preview - Atlanta (4-1) at Philadelphia (3-2)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A hint of quarterback drama will be in the air on both sides of Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles play host to the Atlanta Falcons in a battle of two of the NFC's top teams thus far in 2010.
For the homestanding Eagles, the man behind center is currently a mystery. Starter and ex-Falcon Michael Vick missed last week's 27-24 win at the San Francisco 49ers with rib injuries, but told reporters on Wednesday that it was still possible that he could play against his former team.
If he can't, the job would again go to demoted opening-day starter Kevin Kolb, who played generally well in the road win last Sunday night, completing 21- of-31 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown to shake off a rough effort, in relief of Vick, against Washington the week before.
Another strong outing by Kolb this week could fan the flames of a quarterback controversy in Philadelphia, where the Eagles join the Giants and Redskins in a first-place deadlock as Week 6 commences.
The identity of the Atlanta starting QB will not be a mystery on Sunday, but the Falcons' Matt Ryan will be under intense scrutiny nonetheless.
Ryan, a native of the Philadelphia suburb of Exton who attended high school at Penn Charter in Philly, will be taking a second crack at an NFL win in his hometown.
Ryan opened a 27-14 loss at the Linc on Oct. 26, 2008, with the then-rookie throwing for 277 yards and two touchdowns but also firing two interceptions in the defeat.
The former first-rounder has come a long way since, and has the first-place Falcons on the brink of their first five-game winning streak in a single season since 1998, when Atlanta won 11 in a row en route to their lone Super Bowl appearance.
The Falcons extended their win streak to four with last week's 20-10 win at Cleveland, which handed Atlanta its first victory at the Browns since 1971.
On a grind-it-out sort of day, it was running back Michael Turner (19 carries, 140 yards) moving the chains, wideout Roddy White (5 receptions, 101 yards including a 45-yard touchdown catch) adding value through the air, and Ryan (16-of-28, 187 yards, 1 TD) continuing his recent run of efficiency.
The Falcons defense forced exactly three turnovers for the fourth consecutive game, including a 41-yard interception return by defensive end Kroy Biermann that sealed the game in the fourth-quarter. The unit also held emerging Browns running back Peyton Hillis, who had logged back-to-back 100-yard days, to just 28 yards on 10 carries.
The victory was enough to keep Atlanta (4-1) a half-game up on surprising Tampa Bay (3-1) in the NFC South, with New Orleans (3-2) falling a full game back with their stunning loss in Arizona.
Technically, the four-game winning streak is the Falcons longest since 2003-04, when the Falcons won six straight. Atlanta finished the '03 season with a couple of wins in a row under interim head coach Wade Phillips, before winning its first four under Jim Mora in 2004.
The Eagles hold a 14-10-1 edge in their all-time regular season series with the Falcons, and have won each of the last three head-to-head meetings with Atlanta. Philadelphia was a 34-7 winner when it visited the Georgia Dome in Week 13 of last season, a game that saw Chris Redman start in place of the injured Ryan. Vick led Atlanta to its most recent win in the series, a 14-10 affair at the Georgia Dome in a Monday Night matchup to open the 2005 campaign.
In addition to their regular season advantage, the Eagles are 2-1 against the Falcons in the playoffs. Philadelphia was a 27-10 winner in the 2004 NFC Championship, defeated the Falcons, 20-6, in a 2002 NFC Divisional Playoff, and dropped a 14-13 road decision in a 1978 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Including playoffs, the Falcons are 0-5 in Philadelphia since last winning there in 1988.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid is 7-1 as a head coach against Atlanta, including the two aforementioned playoff wins. The Falcons' Mike Smith is 0-2 against both Reid and the Eagles as a head coach.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
The Falcons have achieved very good offensive balance thus far in 2010, ranking in the top half of the league in both rushing and passing for a collective mark of seventh in NFL total offense. The approach has, however, skewed toward the run, with Michael Turner (421 rushing yards, 1 TD) generally stirring the drink and Jason Snelling (244 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 3 TD) called upon on occasion as well. Turner did not play against the Eagles last year due to injury, and was held to 58 yards on 17 carries in the 2008 meeting. When Ryan (1165 passing yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) throws it, he looks most often to White (37 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (24 receptions, 1 TD), though that crew could be joined by a talented veteran face on Sunday. Falcons wide receiver Michael Jenkins, who has missed the first five games of the season due to a shoulder injury, is slated to make his 2010 debut. White and Gonzalez combined for 17 catches and 176 yards against the Birds last year, albeit in a losing effort. Ryan was sacked twice by the Browns last week, bringing Atlanta's total in that category to 10 on the year.
The Eagles are a middle-of-the-pack 15th in total defense as Week 6 begins, but come off a week in which they bottled up 49ers running back Frank Gore (18 carries, 52 yards, two lost fumbles) and also goaded quarterback Alex Smith into two interceptions and a lost fumble. Backup cornerbacks Trevard Lindley (3 tackles, 1 INT) and Dimitri Patterson (3 tackles, 1 INT) had the picks, while end Brandon Graham (6 tackles, 2 sacks) strip-sacked Smith and safety Quintin Mikell (31 tackles) took it to the house for a critical 52-yard fumble return- TD early in the fourth quarter. Ends Trent Cole (26 tackles, 3 sacks) and Juqua Parker (8 tackles, 4 sacks) will be among the others pursuing Ryan this week, and Asante Samuel (13 tackles, 1 INT) and Nate Allen (19 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) will spend much of their afternoon concentrating on White. An Eagles run- stopping unit that has been hit-or-miss this year will be without the services of defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (elbow) due to an elbow injury. Mike Patterson (14 tackles) and Trevor Laws (6 tackles, 2 sacks) will have to be stout at the point of attack, with linebackers Stewart Bradley (18 tackles) and Ernie Sims (20 tackles, 1 sack) among those attempting to make plays behind the trench unit.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Kolb (478 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) was a credit to the winning cause last week, throwing a nice touchdown pass to tight end Brent Celek (15 receptions, 2 TD) following a long scramble, and also showing chemistry with wideout Jeremy Maclin (18 receptions, 4 TD) to the tune of six completions and 95 yards. The performance didn't quell the criticism that Kolb is incapable of throwing the deep balls that No. 1 receiver DeSean Jackson (18 receptions, 2 TD) has made a living off of, however, as evidenced by Jackson's stat line of two catches and 24 yards. An appearance by Vick (799 passing yards, 6 TD, 0 INT) in the lineup would be good news for Jackson, and probably good news for an o-line that will be replacing injured left tackle Jason Peters with the shaky King Dunlap on Sunday. The Eagles rank No. 1 in the NFL in yards per carry (5.3), and while some of that number can be attributed to the scrambling abilities of Vick, running back LeSean McCoy (365 rushing yards, 5 TD, 28 receptions) has been impressive carrying the football as well. Newly-acquired Birds running back Jerome Harrison (91 rushing yards with the Browns), who was traded in exchange for RB Mike Bell on Wednesday, will interestingly be facing the Falcons for a second straight week. Harrison carried six times for six yards versus Atlanta last week, while in a Cleveland uniform.
Whoever plays quarterback for Philadelphia on Sunday will have to avoid the major mistake against a Falcons defense that has intercepted an NFL-best 10 passes, including Biermann's big pick last week and another one by linebacker Stephen Nicholas (22 tackles, 1 INT). Cornerbacks Dunta Robinson (22 tackles) and Brent Grimes (18 tackles, 1 INT) will likely have primary responsibility against Jackson and Maclin, respectively, with safeties William Moore (17 tackles, 2 INT) and Thomas DeCoud (24 tackles, 1 INT) helping out over the top. Moore had a fumble recovery against the Browns last week. The pass rush has been paced by Biermann (12 tackles, 1 sack) and veteran end John Abraham (12 tackles, 4 sacks), who terrorized Browns left tackle Joe Thomas for a pair of sacks last week. The Falcons are a healthy eighth in the league against the run as Week 6 begins, with young linebackers Curtis Lofton (36 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Sean Weatherspoon (29 tackles, 1 sack) working well behind a front wall led by tackle Jonathan Babineaux (9 tackles, 2 sacks).
The Falcons have a few sure-fire fantasy plays every week, with Turner, White and Gonzalez all worthy of a starting nod, and Ryan a decent option for those who have a starting QB on a bye. Kicker Matt Bryant (12-of-14 field goals) has been a consistent enough contributor to warrant a play, and it's tough not to play an Atlanta defense that leads the league in picks.
On the Philadelphia side, it's not advisable to start Kolb, and Vick's injury limitations should keep him on the fantasy bench as well for this week. McCoy has become the team's most reliable fantasy starter, with Celek probably a close second, and the hot-and-cold Jackson and Maclin belong in a lot of lineups despite their inconsistency.
The Falcons belong in any discussion of the NFC's top teams through the first five weeks, as their offensive balance and playmaking ability on defense have the team's fans dreaming of the franchise's second Super Bowl appearance. That talk is more than warranted, but still a little premature for a team that struggled during the middle portion of last season. If they can win a second straight road game - one of the NFL's most difficult achievements - you can start talking about Atlanta as a legitimate contender. But the guess here is that the homestanding Eagles will play better football than the visiting Falcons, with either Kolb or Vick making the big fourth-quarter play that turns the tide of this contest.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 23, Falcons 16
10/14 17:08:08 ET