Super Bowl Predictions 2011: 10 Things Atlanta Falcons Must Do to Win It All
Super Bowl Predictions 2011 would ideally set up the New England Patriots as favorites over the Atlanta Falcons.
Those are the two top seeds who have home field advantage in the postseason and are supposedly dealt the easiest slew of opponents.
But even for the NFC's No. 1 seed who doesn't have to leave home for nearly a month, the road to Dallas in early February is not an easy one.
So what does Mike Smith's crew have to do to get there?
No. 10: Hope Gary Anderson Is Kicking for the Opponent
No matter how talented and experienced a team is, luck still plays a factor in reaching the Super Bowl.
That was proven the year the Falcons earned their only Super Bowl berth in team history.
In the 1998 NFC Championship Game, the Falcons traveled to the Metrodome to face the seemingly infallible Vikings.
However, Minnesota's veteran kicker Gary Anderson—who had made 35 of 35 field goal attempts that year—missed a game-sealing 38-yarder with two minutes remaining, which allowed Chris Chandler and the Falcons to tie the game and then win it in overtime, sending Atlanta to Super Bowl XXXIII.
If Atlanta returns to the big game a dozen years later, they'll likely need another type of lucky break.
No. 9: Contain Mobile Quarterbacks
For a second, forget that Michael Vick is the Eagles quarterback (and a good bet to be the runner-up for league MVP).
There are other mobile quarterbacks out there in this year's playoffs, in both conferences.
Atlanta didn't face Vick when they met Philadelphia back in Week 6.
But they did a mediocre job of containing the Packers' Aaron Rodgers (12 carries, 51 yards, 1 TD) in Week 12, the Buccaneers' Josh Freeman in Weeks 9 and 13 (54 yards) and the Saints' Drew Brees, who routinely broke the pocket and made key first downs through the air.
With Vick a very likely NFC Championship Game opponent and perhaps Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger a Super Bowl opponent, those are three quarterbacks who could ruin the Falcons' title hopes with their legs as much as their arms.
No. 8: Don't Forget About Michael Turner
Matt Ryan ("Matty Ice") is the leader, the face and the star of the Falcons. There is no question about that. And the Atlanta passing game is excellent.
They have perhaps the best wide receiver in the NFL in Roddy White and one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history in Tony Gonzalez.
But their Pro Bowl running back is just as, if not more, important.
There's been a pretty simple formula in Atlanta this year: When Michael Turner gets 20 or more carries, the Falcons win.
Eight times Turner posted 20 or more carries. Atlanta went 8-0.
With all the talent in the passing game, it would be easy for offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to fall in love with throwing the ball. But they need to run Turner to maintain drives.
No. 7: Trust Brent Grimes
The Falcons secondary has been fairly inconsistent this year.
Although they lost, Atlanta did a very good job of limiting Drew Brees and the Saints in the first three quarters of their Week 16 showdown.
The same was true against the mighty Packers passing game.
But they let Joe Flacco and the sporadic Ravens offense carve them up in Week 10 and allowed Josh Freeman to twice put the Bucs in position for an upset win. In their home game against the slumping Bengals, Carson Palmer also torched them for over 400 yards passing.
Rolling coverage to Dunta Robinson's side and leaving Brent Grimes in single coverage might be a way to avoid giving up those big plays, especially if they face the Eagles' DeSean Jackson.
Grimes has been outstanding this year, coming up with a handful of crucial interceptions and pass breakups.
They should feel confident that he can be the shutdown corner they need to reach the Super Bowl.
No. 6: Improve the Run Defense
The Falcons finished the 2010 regular season 10th in rushing defense, averaging just 106 yards per game. But that stat is a bit misleading.
Atlanta's excellent offense often raced out to big leads, and the opponent was forced to abandon the running game and play catchup through the air.
A more revealing stat is their average yards surrendered per run. In the NFC, only two teams posted a worse yards-per-carry average than the Falcons' 4.6 figure.
If the Falcons find themselves in another low-scoring nail-biter like they did against New Orleans and Green Bay, surrendering a few rushing first downs could keep them from advancing.
No. 5: Michael Jenkins Stepping Up
Of course Roddy White will be the most sought-after target for Matt Ryan: He led the NFL with 115 catches, scored 10 touchdowns and had an league-best 73 catches that resulted in a first down.
With future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez streaking down or across the seam, Ryan also has an outstanding second option.
But opposing teams know that—and if Ryan tries to force the ball to those two top-notch players, turnovers will result.
Michael Jenkins has not lived up to his first-round potential, never accumulating more than 777 yards in a single year. But in the later part of 2010, his seventh season, he started to make more and more big plays, especially in the win over Baltimore and the second game against New Orleans.
A few clutch grabs from Jenkins will take pressure off Ryan, White and Gonzalez and will do wonders for the Falcons' Super Bowl run.
No. 4: Get More Pressure
John Abraham is an elite pass rusher and for the third time in his career produced 13 or more sacks in 2010.
But the rest of the Falcons' front seven has not been able to get nearly as much pressure throughout the course of the season.
In their two most recent losses, players not named John Abraham produced just one total sack on opposing quarterbacks.
Chauncey Davis made one huge pressure of Drew Brees in Week 16, resulting in an interception, but more penetration from Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux and the occasional linebacker blitz dialed up by Brian VanGorder will be key.
No. 3: Avenge the Saints Loss
Assuming the Saints steamroll the 7-9 Seahawks and the Packers don't get by the Eagles, a rematch with New Orleans will be set for the Divisional Round game on January 15.
Considering that the two teams both scored 41 points apiece in their home-and-home series this year, it should be a great game.
But assuming it is New Orleans at Atlanta for that second round, the Saints did come into the Georgia Dome very recently and defeat the Falcons in a crucial, pressure-packed game.
The Falcons will be more than three months removed from their win in New Orleans.
That's a big confidence boost for the Saints.
But a win over the reigning Super Bowl champs would be an even bigger confidence boost for Atlanta as they head into the NFC title game.
No. 2: Get Better on Third Down
If the Falcons defense has one major deficiency, it's emerged on third down.
They were in the bottom half of the NFL in third down defense (39 percent conversion, 22nd in the league), and in a few games, they've been far worse.
In the loss vs. New Orleans, Drew Brees' offense converted eight of 17 third down attempts. In the shootout with Carson Palmer's Bengals, Cincinnati converted seven of 12 third down attempts. Against the Ravens, Joe Flacco produced six third down conversion in 11 attempts. And in the loss at Philadelphia, they allowed Kevin Kolb seven conversions in 14 attempts.
Whatever it takes, they need to limit the opponent to well under 50 percent if they hope to pull off a win in the playoffs.
No. 1: Don't Get Caught Up in Vick Mania
In Week 13 of the 2009 season, the Falcons hosted the Philadelphia Eagles. Even though Michael Vick was a third-string, goal-line quarterback, he was the star of that week's pregame hype.
That regular season game between a 6-5 team and a 7-4 team was a major story with major hype because it was Vick's first return to the Georgia Dome, where he had been a hero to thousands of Falcons fans (and the team's owner, Arthur Blank) for years.
If the next time the Eagles and Falcons square off in Atlanta (with Vick as Philly's starter) is for a trip to the Super Bowl, that hype will be infinitely magnified.
There is a good chance the Eagles do reach the NFC title game and face Vick, and should the Eagles win their Wild Card game against Green Bay, that will be the media's ideal choice for a NFC title game and will be talked about even in the divisional round.
That can be a major distraction, even if it's only fluff.