Saturday night's matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions will showcase two teams going in different directions. Atlanta has punched its ticket to the playoffs by claiming the NFC South title. The Lions have punched themselves.
Atlanta is one win away from home-field advantage in the postseason. Detroit is one loss away from making it seven straight. Atlanta has won 12 of its last 14. Detroit has lost 10 of its last 14.
Atlanta is headed north. Detroit is plummeting south.
On paper, this game should be a lock for the Falcons. Frankly, it's hard to find a way Detroit beats Atlanta. Until you look at the human factor—the factor that tells you it will be a long day for the Falcons should they play the Lions in and themselves out.
The longer Atlanta allows Detroit to stay in this game the greater the Lions' confidence grows. Like its remaining regular-season games, this one should be all about Atlanta playing its style. Start fast, finish strong.
At 4-9 on the season, some might say Detroit has nothing but pride on its side. It's been a season of disappointment for a team looking to take the next step in the playoffs. With no playoff implications for Detroit against Atlanta, pride could be the only thing keeping the Lions in the game.
After losing the last six games, pride and confidence are all they have left. Which can be tricky if not down right dangerous for an opponent. See: petting an injured cat. It's an image the Falcons should keep in the forefront of their minds on Saturday.
Despite those two losses Atlanta leads the league in quick starts. Through 14 games they have scored 51 points on their opening possession. More importantly, they've won 41 of the last 51 when they do.
There's no place like home. Or, if you are the Atlanta Falcons, there's no place like dome.
At home in the Georgia Dome they're undefeated in 2012. Since 2008, they have posted a 33-6 record at home. Currently tied with New England with most home wins.
Ford Field in Detroit is not Georgia Dome in Atlanta. But for one night, the Falcons should look for the similarities and not the disparities. Enjoy the climate-controlled environment, the artificial playing surface. And the deafening crowd noise.
There's a lot to be happy about when you carry around a 12-2 record. Even more after wrapping up an NFC South title.
There's the attention of the national media after blanking the Giants 34-0. Non-believers last week are passing the offering plate this week. Even though they've tried, players and coaches can't run from headlines and late arrivals on the bandwagon.
They read the papers, scour the stat sheets and listen to local sports-talk radio. All factors that can lead to complacency. Which just might be the Falcons' toughest remaining opponent. To stay thirsty is to defeat complacency. And Detroit.
One play at a time.
A meaningful and proven anecdote for traversing the ups and downs of a game and season. Not so much if you're calling the plays. You must always be thinking ahead. Thinking about third down before second down. Second before third. Getting your team into short-yardage situations.
Thus far Atlanta has been one of the league's best in this category. They've converted 83 of 179 third-down opportunities. Ranking them second behind New England's 98.
Though, prior to last week's game against the Giants, they went through a two-game stretch of only converting 4-of-26 third-down opportunities. Two games where they found themselves playing from behind the sticks. In second- and third-and-long situations. Creative play-calling on first and second down became nonexistent.
Last week, the most creative and successful calls came on first and second down.
Sometimes we can over analyze a game. We focus on how a team must create their opportunities instead of how they can take opportunities. Such is the case with Atlanta's matchup with Detroit.
There shouldn't be a need to dig deep into the playbook. No need for backyard trick plays or schemes drawn in the sand. Detroit's defense is no slouch but if you keep them on the field long enough, they will hand-deliver opportunity for the taking.
It's a matter of taking what your opponent gives you. Eventually they will give you the game.
It's that time of year when we hear it's better to give than to receive. Try convincing the Falcons. They are the only team in the NFL to field two safeties with four or more interceptions.
Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have paced Atlanta's defense this season with 11 of the team's 27 takeaways. With a plus-nine turnover differential on the season, the Falcons defense have become one of the best at protecting the ball. Atlanta wins this game easily if it keeps the turnovers to itself.
It's a term overused by coaches and much easier said than done. Yet is relevant to victory and survival. Take away your opponent's best weapon.
Entering the game, Johnson leads the league with 1,667 receiving yards. He's second in number of receptions with 106. Nearly a third of his receptions have netted more than 20 yards. Seventy-nine of his 106 receptions have resulted in first downs. And if those numbers are not enough, Johnson comes into the game needing only 182 yards to surpass Jerry Rice's record of 1,848 receiving yards in a single season.
It's no secret that Detroit's chances in this game lie on the back of Johnson. Atlanta must keep the secret silent.
Atlanta's offensive line has been the most inconsistent aspect of their offense. Poor performances in the second half of the season led many to wonder if this unit could gel before the playoffs.
After its loss to Carolina, Atlanta's front line got back to the basics. Straight-up, one-on-one blocking. Behind tackles Tyson Clabo and Sam Baker, the Falcons front line established the run game.
When Matt Ryan dropped back to pass, he did so under his best protection of the season. Ryan was sacked only once. By far last week's was their best performance. It will take another effort to till the trenches against the Lions before this unit is considered to be a final product.
Matthew Stafford is no Eli Manning. But what worked against Manning can work against Stafford. Atlanta showed a myriad of schemes to put pressure on Manning. They only sacked him one time but pressured him on half of his passing attempts. They turned up the pressure by mixing a combination of stunts along the defensive line and combo coverages in the secondary. Pre-snap man coverage dropping back into a zone. Blitzes appearing on the left then coming from the right. All this left Manning confused and unable to find a rhythm. Like Manning, Stafford can pick a secondary apart if allowed to comfortably sit in the pocket. If pressured his fundamentals can breakdown. He drops his elbow, stares down his target, and makes ill-advised throws. Like a week ago, Atlanta's defensive success hinges on their ability to pressure the quarterback. Both mentally and physically.
Like Atlanta, Detroit is best when it can establish the run game. In a game the Lions find themselves searching for confidence, the run attack is even more important.
It's uncertain at this time if leading rusher Mikel Leshoure will be play due to a calf injury. His backup Joique Bell averages 5.2 yards per carry and has proven to be the more physical runner. The challenge for Atlanta's defense will be to keep the Lions one dimensional. It starts with taking away their running game.