The Falcons are 5-3 at the midpoint and right in the thick of the battle for the playoffs, likely not for the NFC South Crown barring a complete collapse by the Saints. Assuming they might be looking at a wild-card run, the Falcons have to keep a serious focus on the task at hand and worry solely about the NFC South rivalry coming up in Charlotte against the Panthers. Granted the Panthers aren’t having the best of years, sitting at 3-5 at the midway point, but they are an extremely proud team that knows that anything is possible in the second half of the season. Many teams have overcome worse to make runs and get into the playoffs. To say that this is a needed win for the Panthers would be understating it since they’re already well under .500 and John Fox’s seat might be burning hot. To Mike Smith’s credit, the Falcons have done a pretty good job of winning the games they’re supposed to for the most part. The Birds still have many areas to improve upon and they are yet to put all three phases of their game together, save for the San Francisco game, particularly finding consistency in the passing attack. The Falcons surely have some enormous games coming down the pipe with a trip to New York looming next week followed by the Philadelphia Eagles in a couple weeks in the Terror-Dome. Ironically, as it stands now the Falcons are in a close heat with New York and Philly for the two wild card spots if the playoffs were to start soon. Of course none of that matters if the Birds can’t take of business against the Panthers in Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
DE – John Abraham vs. RT – Jeff Otah
DT – Jonathan Babineaux vs. RG – Keydrick Vincent
DT – Jamaal Anderson/Vance Walker vs. C – Ryan Kalil/LG – Travelle Wharton
DE – Kroy Biermann vs. LT – Jordan Gross
SLB – Stephen Nicholas vs. TE – Jeff King
MLB – Curtis Lofton vs. FB – Brad Hoover/RB – Jonathan Stewart
WLB – Mike Peterson vs. vs. RB – Deangelo Williams
CB – Chris Houston vs. WR – Steven Smith
CB – Tye Hill vs. WR – Muhsin Muhammed
SS – Erik Coleman vs. TE – Jeff King
FS – Thomas DeCoud vs. QB – Jake Delhomme
Nickel – Chevis Jackson/Brent Grimes vs. Slot – Dwayne Jarrett
LT – Sam Baker/Will Svitek vs. DE – Julius Peppers
LG – Justin Blalock vs. DT – Damione Lewis
C – Todd McClure/RG – Harvey Dahl vs. DT – Hollis Thomas
RT – Tyson Clabo vs. Tyler Brayton
RB – Michael Turner vs. WLB – James Anderson
FB – Ovie Mughelli vs. MLB – Jon Beason
TE – Tony Gonzalez vs. SLB – Na’il Diggs
WR – Roddy White vs. CB – Chris Gamble
WR – Michael Jenkins vs. CB – Richard Marshall
TE – Tony Gonzalez vs. SS – Chris Harris
QB – Matt Ryan vs. FS – Charles Godfrey
Slot – Marty Booker/Eric Weems vs. CB – Captain Munnerlyn/CJ Wilson
Sam Baker was held out of practice this week due to an injury sustained against the Redskins. Although Baker was extremely injury-prone last year, he has started and played in all 8 games so far this season. Along with the rest of the offensive line, Baker hasn’t been a stout pillar of protection for Matt Ryan as of late. Baker was replaced by Will Svitek in the lineup against he Redskins and seemed to play well in relief. One of Dimitroff’s big goals was to shore up the offensive line in terms of depth. Svitek and Brett Romberg were two signings that flew well under the radar, but have shown to be good pickups to date. If Baker doesn’t play, will Svitek be able to handle All-Pro Julius Peppers in check or will the Panthers defensive line continue the hard knocks on Matt Ryan?
Much has certainly been made of Matt Ryan’s slump or non-slump in the last few games. Ryan has seen better games after throwing quite a few interceptions in the last 3 games (6) and looking a little rattled from time to time. He’s on target for the same amount of passing yards as last season and his touchdowns are almost equal to that of his entire total from last year, but the Ryan has made some uncharacteristic decisions and seems to be locked onto Tony Gonzalez in spite of his other receivers downfield. Lack of a running game could have once been proffered, but that has completely gone by the wayside the last two weeks with Michael Turner ripping off some huge games against the Saints and Redskins. Although Ryan has appeared to not throw the ball deep, he’s on par to meet the same goal of +20 passes as last year. Ryan had a paltry 135 yards passing last week, but he did complete over 70% of his passes. Ryan was 21 for 27 last time against the Cats for 2 TDs, may the Panthers be his cure for what’s ailing him?
Running back Michael Turner has absolutely been on fire the last couple of weeks, racking up over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns in the last two weeks and not against the weakest of defenses in New Orleans and Washington either. The return of Ovie Mughelli has surely been a welcome addition to the running game, particularly with Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling being sidelined recently. The Panthers defense may not be on their normal dominance, missing Thomas Davis and starting DT Maake Kemoeatu going down for the season early in the year, but they are playing at home and have their backs completely against the wall in this one. If they’ve seen the game tape from the last two weeks, they probably will be loading the box up and forcing Matt Ryan to beat them through the air. Aaron Stecker proved formidable in the passing game, but obviously lacked the speed of Norwood to be a true complement to Turner’s thunder.
As expected, Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have caught fire as of recent with the Panthers determined to run the ball first, often, and always. Williams, in particular, has been on a great streak of late going over 150 yards rushing in three of the last four games. Stewart’s numbers are down a little bit, but he’s edged up close to a 5 yard per rush average and is a tough runner, especially around the goal-line. The Falcons defense has done a much better job of keeping some of the better running back tandems in check in the Cowboys Marion Barber-Felix Jones-Tashard Choice and Saints Mike Bell-Reggie Bush-Pierre Thomas. Jamaal Anderson’s move to the middle has fortified the rush defense and the emergence of Vance Walker coupled with the return of Trey Lewis has meant better rush stopping. They have their work cut out this week.
The Falcons secondary has rebounded very nicely in the last two weeks after a complete meltdown in Dallas. Admittedly Jason Campbell and the Redskins are pretty inept in the passing attack, but there’s no question they played well when they held Drew Brees, arguably the NFL’s best QB this year, to his worst passer rating of the year. Chris Houston has been playing better in man-to-man coverage and Tye Hill has been a nice surprise after learning the defense for several months after his trade from St. Louis. Chevis Jackson seemed to play like his old-self from starring in the nickel role a year ago. Jake Delhomme has had an up and down year, but he’s a cagey QB who can do good things if he gets into a rhythm and his running game is working well. The biggest question will be if the secondary can hold Steve Smith relatively in check. He had another big day against the Falcons DB’s in the second game in the Georgia Dome, going well over 130 yards receiving and exposing one the Falcons big weaknesses. And the nightmares still run rampant of Brent Grimes getting manhandled by Muhsin Muhammed last year in Charlotte.
If past results under Coach Mike Smith are any indication, the answer is not likely. Smith’s teams are generally well-prepared and show up ready for the task, notably in rivalry games. Smith and Co. have done a good job of keeping the team in a mindset of playing week to week and refusing to get caught looking ahead. There are surely some big games ahead on the schedule with an away trip to the Giants in New York and the Eagles at home, both looking to be in direct competition for the wild card spots. All of that will be for naught if the Falcons can’t take care of business against a tough, but less than stellar Panthers team.
-You Answer the Six Searing Questions
-Will the Falcons take care of business in Charlotte?
-Are the Birds vulnerable to looking ahead to next week?
-Will the Panthers come out firing with their backs against the wall?
-Can the offensive line keep pressure off Ryan?
-Is this Ryan’s game to get back on track?
-Will Turner continue his hot streak?
-What will the Falcons defense do with Williams and Stewart?
-Who should be on Steve Smith: Chris Houston or Tye Hill?
-What’s your final prediction and score?