The Philadelphia Eagles got off to a surprising start, but they have since lost three of four and head into a season-defining stretch against a string of playoff contenders, beginning Sunday with a home game against the explosive Atlanta Falcons.
Little was expected from the Eagles after an offseason that saw a coaching change and the exodus of their presumed starting quarterback and top running back. But Philadelphia raced out to a 3-0 start behind savvy rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and an opportunistic, aggressive defense.
Wentz and the Eagles cooled off the past two weeks, though, and dropped division games on the road to the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants in back-to-back weeks.
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"We still are -- and I truly believe that -- we're still a good football team," Eagles first-year coach Doug Pederson said.
That will be tested against the Falcons (6-3), who, led by quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones, boast the highest-scoring offense in the NFL, averaging 33.9 points. Ryan, who grew up around the Philadelphia area, is having an MVP-caliber season, completing 69.3 percent of his throws with 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
"It's always fun to get back up there and play," Ryan said. "We'll be ready to go. It'll be nice to have some family and friends up there. But once we start playing, it's like any other week. You just get into it and try to play your best."
Jones is averaging 19.0 yards per catch and has five touchdowns. But there's much more to the Falcons' attack than Ryan and Jones. Receiver Mohamed Sanu has 37 catches, including three touchdowns, and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both receiving threats out of the backfield. Coleman is out with a hamstring injury this week.
"(Ryan's) not always having to look for Julio (Jones)," Pederson told reporters. "He's got other weapons on that offense that he's utilizing and that's what's making that offense explosive right now."
The Eagles' pass defense ranks sixth in the league, allowing 218 yards through the air per game. Starting corner Leodis McKelvin (hamstring) fully participated in practice Wednesday.
The Falcons also have injury concerns in their secondary, but they received good news this week when a second look at star cornerback Desmond Trufant's left shoulder produced optimism about the Pro Bowler's availability. Trufant, who injured the shoulder in last Thursday's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, did not practice Wednesday but has not been ruled out against the Eagles.
"The good news for us, from the second opinion, everything went well," Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said Wednesday. "We're going to list him as day to day now."
Second-year defensive back Jalen Collins, who was suspended for the first four games of the regular season after violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, is expected to start if Trufant can't go.
The Falcons will be without veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney, who is battling a quad injury.
Atlanta has played well on the road, going 4-1 away from home this season. Quinn, who is in his second season with the Falcons, credits the team's preparation process for its success away from home.
"We love the process that we go through to get ready," Quinn told reporters Wednesday. "Whether we're home, away, night, day, West Coast, East Coast, we know we have a responsibility to get ready."
The Eagles are 3-0 at home this season, including wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings.
Wentz, a first-round draft pick out of North Dakota State, has exceeded expectations but has not been able to produce big plays in the passing game as of late. He threw two interceptions without a touchdown in last week's loss at the Giants.
"He's learning the speed of the game and learning that each game is different, unique and has its own set of circumstances," Pederson said of the rookie. "I also think he realizes how hard it is to win in the NFL, and when you do win, how rewarding it is due to the preparation that goes into the week.
"One thing he has done well is (taking care of) the things that we've asked him to do in managing our offense during the game. He's handled it extremely well."