The road through the NFC playoffs could be paved Saturday night in Detroit.
The Atlanta Falcons (12-2) travel north to face the Lions (4-10), knowing that just one win over the last two games will secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The Lions are just hoping to build some positive energy from a season lost to disappointment.
In the following slides, we'll break down the five matchups that will decide who wins the NFL's first Saturday game of the 2012 season.
No team in the NFL throws the football as much as the Lions, who average almost 46 passing attempts a game. The obvious way to counter a high-volume passing team? Constant pressure.
The Falcons' best pass-rusher is likely John Abraham, a 34-year-old defensive end who has 10 sacks this season and 122 in his decorated career. While Atlanta likes to move Abraham from the left to the right side in hopes of finding the best pass-rushing matchup, he does the majority of his work on the defense's right side.
Meeting him there Saturday night will be the Lions' veteran left tackle Jeff Backus, who hasn't allowed a sack since Week 1. Backus needs to keep Abraham out of Detroit's backfield for the Lions to have a chance.
Few quarterbacks take as many risks with the football as Matthew Stafford, and that should favor Atlanta's ball-hawking secondary Saturday night.
Leading the group is cornerback Asante Samuel, who is one of the best at baiting and tricking quarterbacks into making bad decisions.
But as a group, Mike Nolan's defense does a sound job of disguising coverages and confusing quarterbacks in the pre-snap portion of the game. Stafford, who has thrown 15 interceptions this season, has to be cognizant before the snap and smart after it. Turnovers in the passing game will all but doom the Lions' chances of pulling off the upset.
In the meeting between these two teams last season—a 23-16 win for Atlanta—the Falcons controlled the clock and kept the Lions off the field using the run.
Michael Turner rushed for 127 yards on 22 carries, as Atlanta held the ball for almost 35 minutes and ran 14 more plays than Detroit.
While Turner has struggled this season (3.7 yards per carry), the Lions are allowing 4.6 yards a rush (27th in the NFL) and have shown a number of leaks against teams that commit to the run.
The Falcons are a much more vertical passing offense this season, but Turner and the running game are still important aspects of what Atlanta wants to accomplish on offense. Detroit has to make the Falcons as one-dimensional as it can Saturday night.
The Lions controlled Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for long stretches in Detroit last season, but the 2012 version of Ryan might be a different beast altogether.
Lost in the Falcons' 34-0 win over the New York Giants in Week 15 was just how efficient Ryan was. He completed 23-of-28 passes for 270 yards and three scores—good for a passer rating of 142.6 and a QBR of 96.2. At least statistically, the performance marked one of the best of the season at the quarterback position.
The Lions are undermanned in the secondary and out-gunned in terms of talent, especially against a passing game like Atlanta's. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham will have to get clever in his looks and then hope for a big push in the pass rush to contain Ryan and the Falcons Saturday night.
At this point, the idea of "stopping" Johnson is unrealistic. The Lions throw the football his way without fail, and there is no cornerback or safety in the game physically capable of handling the All-Pro receiver for 60 minutes.
In fact, over his last four games, Johnson has been targeted a staggering 68 times. He's caught 41 of those for 550 yards. Targets and production have come in bunches.
The Falcons can throw a number of good players Johnson's way, including Dunta Robinson, Samuel and underrated slot cornerback Robert McClain. Safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are both proficient against the pass.
However, Atlanta can bank on Johnson getting his Saturday night. The Falcons' main goal should be to make sure Johnson isn't the reason why they get beat.