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Thursday Night Preview: Will the Eagles Continue to Soar?

It's baaaaack. Football is actually here, in the flesh, for us to view, and it's time to get this puppy started. Each Thursday, we will break down the night's game from multiple angles, including betting lines.

Now, it's time to get ready for some football. And luckily, the NFL gives us a juicy matchup to start the year, with the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles taking the field against the Atlanta Falcons in a rematch of last year's NFC playoffs.

Per our team rankings, based off of our nERD metric, we should be treated to a great game. The Eagles are ranked as the league's best squad, but the Falcons aren't too far behind, checking in 12th.

Who will come out on top on this matchup? Let's dig in and find out.

Quarterback Breakdown

This one is a tale of two quarterbacks, one of which has been a staple of his team, and one that didn't even start his team's opener last season.

Among the 35 quarterbacks who recorded at least 200 drop backs in 2017, Matt Ryan was solid in terms of Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, ranking 10th at 0.19. In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in a positive NEP -- there was no one better than Ryan, as he led the league with a Success Rate of 51.54%. While Ryan definitely took a step back in terms of passing touchdowns, dropping from 38 in 2016 to 20 in 2017, he was still very solid last year.

Nick Foles started only three regular season games last year following Carson Wentz's knee injury in Week 14, but he did a great job in the playoffs in leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl win and tossing six touchdown passes in the last two playoff games. In those three regular season games, Foles was far less effective. Among passers with 50 or more drop backs (49), Foles was 26th in Passing NEP per drop back (-0.01) and 41st in Passing Success Rate (39.62%) in 2017. He was a pretty mediocre signal-caller and he will likely need to replicate his playoff performances to top the Falcons.

Atlanta seems to have a decided edge at the quarterback position, but how do the running games stack up?

Running Back Play

The Falcons feature dynamic running back play in the form of a duo of runners and out-of-the-backfield pass-catchers in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

Among the runners with 75 or more rushes, Freeman was fantastic, ranking 12th in Rushing NEP per attempt (0.04). In terms of Rushing Success Rate, Freeman was an even bigger beast, ranking sixth (46.43%) among qualified backs.

But to highlight Freeman only tells one part of the story, as Coleman was a fantastic threat out of the backfield, albeit as a receiver. By Receiving NEP per target, Coleman ranked third with a mark of 0.66.

For the Eagles, the workhorse is likely to be Jay Ajayi, who they traded for on Halloween, and he was a bit less effective than the Falcons' runners. Ajayi ranked 37th among the same group in Rushing NEP per play (-0.07), and he is only slightly better through the lens of Rushing Success Rate (35th, 36.54%).

With an edge also in the running game, it looks like Philadelphia may have their hands full on defense. Are they up to the challenge?

Defensive Matchup

These were two strong defensive units in 2017, and they will look to build on those numbers in 2018. Per our schedule-adjusted per-play metrics, the Eagles' unit ranked 4th while the Falcons' defense slid in at 14th.

Neither team were particularly adept at harassing the quarterback. In looking at Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate, the Falcons clocked in at 16th (6.6%), while the Eagles were further back at 19th (6.3%).

In looking a little closer at both defensive units, the Eagles' defense was solid against both the pass and the run, ranking fourth in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play and third in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play.

The Falcons, meanwhile, weren't so hot on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 18th against the pass and 22nd against the run, according to our models. To keep pace with a strong offense like the Eagles, the Falcons need to improve dramatically this year on defense, and they are hopeful free agent addition Terrell McClain can help shore up this unit.

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