Falcons v. Eagles Game Preview

The Falcons need a strong start so they can stay close and stick with the running game. They're a dome team, but the Falcons' ground game should serve them well in what is expected to be very cold conditions. The Eagles will move an eighth man into the box and try to force QB Michael Vick to win the game through the air. But Atlanta will attempt to run regardless and the game could hinge on how well the Eagles tackle.

Atlanta Falcons (12-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (14-3)

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Sunday, 3:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 01/23/05
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Collinsworth
SERIES: 22nd meeting. Eagles lead 11-9-1. Each team has beaten the other once in the playoffs, the Falcons winning in 1978 at home, and Philadelphia after the 2002 season at home. Last season, Philadelphia overcame a halftime deficit to beat Atlanta 23-16 in the Georgia Dome in a November game.
2004 RANKINGS: Falcons: offense 20th (1st rush, 30th pass); defense 14th (8th rush, 24th pass). Eagles: offense 9th (24th rush, 6th pass); defense 10th (16th rush, 12th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons need a strong start so they can stay close and stick with the running game. They're a dome team, but the Falcons' ground game should serve them well in what is expected to be very cold conditions. The Eagles will move an eighth man into the box and try to force QB Michael Vick to win the game through the air. But Atlanta will attempt to run regardless and the game could hinge on how well the Eagles tackle. If Vick or RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett get past the front eight, the Falcons can generate the big pass plays their offense needs to score. Atlanta won't put together many sustained drives, so it needs Vick to create big plays with his feet or off busted plays, and for someone other than TE Alge Crumpler to have an impact in the passing game. The Eagles offense isn't the same without WR Terrell Owens, but Freddie Mitchell stepped up last weekend and RB Brian Westbrook often lines up as a receiver. For Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, a solid start is important to avoid images from three consecutive poor NFC Championships to creep into his mind. In what should be a close game, special teams will play a big role. Atlanta K Jay Feely is not a strong outdoor kicker, but return man Allen Rossum is coming off a huge game against St. Louis. Eagles K David Akers is not only one of the best in the game, he's very experienced in the cold conditions of Lincoln Financial Field.

FAST FACTS: Eagles RB Brian Westbrook has a streak of seven straight games with at least 100 rushing and receiving yards. He's averaged 6.5 yards per touch in those seven games. ... Eagles QB Donovan McNabb has a 53.5 percent completion percentage in the last three NFC Championship games. Has averaged only 5.1 yards per attempt. Has thrown only one touchdown and five interceptions. ... 35.4 percent of the Falcons' NFL-leading sacks that came on the road. Atlanta had 31 sacks at home, 17 in road games. ... The Falcons are the only team undefeated in NFC Championship Games, beating the Vikings 30-27 in overtime in their other appearance, on Jan. 17, 1999. This is the fourth straight season, eighth in the last nine, and 14th in the past 17 that at least one team from Atlanta's division has appeared in the NFC title game. ... Atlanta lost at home to the Eagles last season and fell at Philadelphia 20-6 in the playoffs after the 2002 season. That was in Veterans Stadium. ... As a member of a division champion team, each Falcons player -- and many employees -- will receive an $18,000 playoff share (before taxes) and another $36,500 for advancing to the NFC Championship Game. Players on the Super Bowl championship team get $68,000 more each, and players on the losing team another $36,500 each.

PREDICTION: Eagles 20-17

PERSONNEL NEWS:
Falcons:
-- RT Todd Weiner (sprained left ankle) did not practice again Thursday, but may try on Friday.
-- Reserve WR Brian Finneran's sprained right wrist/thumb will not keep him out of Atlanta's lineup Sunday at Philadelphia.
-- Right CB/nickel Kevin Mathis missed practice with the Falcons again Wednesday, but he may go on Friday. Even if he does play Sunday at Philadelphia, Jason Webster is likely to return to the starting lineup.
-- CB Allen Rossum isn't the only candidate to replace CB Kevin Mathis in nickel and dime situations Sunday in the slot if Mathis' sprained right ankle does not heal in time for Sunday's game at Philadelphia. Other candidates run the gamut from DB Aaron Beasley (not very likely) to RCB Jason Webster and rookie Christian Morton. Mathis, though, hopes to play.
-- OL Steve Herndon remains most likely to play in place of RT Todd Weiner (sprained ankle) if Weiner can't go Sunday at Philadelphia. Herndon started the second game of the season at LT, when Kevin Shaffer had a knee injury. The other candidate is Austin King. Weiner's questionable on the injury report.
-- DL Travis Hall (chest injury) missed practice again Thursday, but while he's listed as questionable (50-50) for Sunday's game at Philadelphia, there seems to be a good chance he'll play.

Eagles:
--LB Mark Simoneau practiced for the second consecutive day Thursday, but still was listed as questionable on the club's injury report for Sunday's game against Atlanta. Simoneau, the club's starting WLB, is recovering from a high ankle sprain.
--DE Jevon Kearse, normally the club's left end, probably will line up quite a bit on the right side Sunday to counter the Falcons' mobile left-handed quarterback, Michael Vick.
--RT Jon Runyan, who suffered an MCL knee sprain Sunday, practiced for the first time Thursday and is listed as probable for Sunday's game against Atlanta. He expects to play Sunday, but how effective he'll be remains a question.
--RG Jermane Mayberry still is nursing a triceps injury. He'll have the most difficult blocking chore Sunday against the Falcons, going up against left tackle Rod Coleman.
--LG Artis Hicks likely would slide over to right tackle Sunday if injured starter Jon Runyan isn't able to play or comes up lame during the game. Hicks has played both guard and tackle slots during his career.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Falcons:
A lot of would-be football pundits are making a big deal out of the weather forecast for Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the Falcons and host Philadelphia.

Atlanta coach Jim Mora said he's not among them.

"I've never been a guy that's worried about the weather and how it affects our team or the other team," he said. "I think that both teams have to go out and handle the environment, no matter what that environment is."

There is likely to be snow on the ground when the Falcons arrive Saturday, and more is predicted to fall Sunday, perhaps a lot of it. That's good theater, but it may not necessarily help one offense more than another.

Yes, Atlanta runs the ball a lot, but unless there's so much snow falling during that game that visibility is dramatically impaired, it won't likely be a problem in the passing game any more than the running game, although you can find people who disagree with that philosophy.

Now, if the high winds that also are predicted for Sunday's game come to fruition, that could be another matter.

The Eagles (14-3) are going to want to pass more than the Falcons (12-5), who figure to get pass-happy only if they have to should they fall significantly behind.

If the wind is strong enough in Lincoln Financial Field, where both ends of the stadium are partially open, that could hurt the Eagles. But Mora's not going there.

"I think that to be great, you have to be able to play in any conditions," he said. "I'm sure that neither team is real concerned about the weather."

Eagles:
Right tackle Jon Runyan, who is nursing an MCL knee sprain, expects to play in Sunday's NFC Championship Game against Atlanta. How effective he'll be is another question.

"I'm doing better," Runyan said Thursday. "It's something you have to deal with. It gets better every day, so hopefully, by Sunday, I'll be alright."

Runyan is listed as probable on the Eagles' injury report. He participated in practice Thursday, but really wasn't able to do much.

Runyan's situation is a concern because he will be lining up across from the Falcons' top pass-rusher, Pro Bowl left end Patrick Kerney, who finished third in the NFC in sacks this season with 13.5.

"There's no doubt in my mind (that I'm going to play)," Runyan said. "If I'm limited, I'm limited. I'm sure coach (Andy) Reid will take care of me that way. So I don't see it as being a problem at all."

By "taking care" of him, Runyan means giving him some blocking help on Kerney with a tight end or running back. The problem is, Falcons left tackle Rod Coleman is even more dangerous than Kerney and usually commands double-teams. If the Eagles have to give Runyan blocking help on Kerney, it's going to be tough to give right guard Jermane Mayberry, who also is hurt (triceps strain), help on Coleman.

Asked what he would do if Runyan can't go or comes up lame during the game, offensive coordinator Brad Childress mentioned two possibilities. One would be sliding Mayberry to the outside. The other would be moving left guard Artis Hicks over to right tackle.

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