Even at 11-1, Falcons know they can’t afford to settle

Thomas DeCoud and the Falcons already have celebrated an NFC South Division title. So what's next? (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Thomas DeCoud and the Falcons already have celebrated a division title. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

With one-quarter of the season left to be played, the Falcons already have clinched a playoff berth and a division title. By the end of Sunday, there’s a chance they will have locked up the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home field through the playoffs, leaving nothing tangible to play for in the final three weeks.

Unless, well, you count the Super Bowl as tangible.

“If you’ve watched the past few years, the teams that are playing the best and have some momentum going into the playoffs are the ones going the deepest,” Falcons center Todd McClure said. “Momentum is a big thing going into the playoffs. Nobody remembers you for September and October. You remember teams for what they do in December and January, so we want to be playing our best ball in the next month.”

The Falcons (11-1), who have their best 12-game record in franchise history, play at Carolina on Sunday. They shouldn’t be lacking in objectives. Nor should anybody assume the three games that follow (New York, at Detroit, Tampa Bay) are meaningless. Three consecutive first-round playoff exits (the last two by lopsided scores) with this same core is evidence enough that the team wasn’t ready for the postseason. Part of it has been mental, but part is simply that they haven’t been good enough, nor physical enough, at least when it counted.

There wasn’t a lot of celebration over clinching the NFC South Division. That’s probably a good thing. “We’ve won the division two of the three years that I’ve been here,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “You’ve gotta act like you’ve been there before. It’s not about the division. It’s about positioning yourself to be a better football team come late December and January.”

With that in mind, here are five areas the Falcons hope to improve on in the final four games.

1. Matt Ryan’s consistency. In the first seven games, Ryan threw for 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. In the past five, he has five touchdowns and seven interceptions (five against Arizona). He has had his season’s lowest completion percentages in two of the past three weeks against Arizona and New Orleans. Neither is particularly alarming since the Falcons are winning. But statistically he is trending downward, so that’s at least a mild concern.

2. Improving the running game. The offense ranks 28th in rushing (91.2 yards per game), averaging only 3.8 yards per carry. We know the Falcons are a pass-first team. But games generally get more physical in the playoffs, so the team’s inability to run, particularly in short-yardage situations, is an even bigger concern now than it was the first three months. Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers were strong early against the Saints (eight carries for 98 yards in the first quarter), but had 15 for 26 (1.73 per carry) the rest of the game.

3. Give John Abraham some help. This season has been like every other one Abraham has spent with the Falcons. The pass rush has been largely dependent on him. Mike Nolan has done a terrific job with the defense this season, especially dealing with the loss of cornerback Brent Grimes for the season and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for three weeks, as well as the foibles of since-dispatched end Ray Edwards. But finding alternate ways to bring pressure is crucial in the postseason, particularly against teams with offensive lines and protection schemes superior to those the Falcons will have faced during the season.

4. Maintain improvement in run defense. This has been significant improvement over the past six weeks. It started when Nolan moved defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux to end, along with Peria Jerry and Corey Peters inside, in run situations. In the first six games, Falcons’ opponents rushed for 863 yards (5.23 per carry). In the past six, the total dropped to 593 (4.20 per carry). Three of the past six opponents were held under 100 yards. The objective is to keep that going.

5. Fix the place-kick quirks. Matt Bryant has not been his usual almost-perfect self on field-goal attempts. Regardless of whether the problem has been in the snap, the hold or the kick, Bryant missed two kicks against Dallas (37 and 43 yards) and two against Tampa (22 and 48). Special-teams coach Keith Armstrong said, “Technically there’s some things that he does, but he’s aware of it. We’ve just got to get them cleaned up.”

Abraham said the Falcons are settling. “It’s like: We win — OK, we’re over that now. We’re NFC South champs — OK, we’re over that, too. We’re onto bigger things.”

By Jeff Schultz

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72 comments Add your comment

Joe Tess Fish House

December 7th, 2012
9:31 pm

Answer This

December 7th, 2012
9:31 pm

I shall be first!

Answer This

December 7th, 2012
9:32 pm

Fist does not count as first….especially from a Aint fan on a Bird blog!

retired

December 7th, 2012
9:41 pm

Tess ain’t necessarily a Aint’s fan just an anti Atlanta fan disses the Braves regularly.

rise up

December 7th, 2012
9:43 pm

Atlanta is relentless.

Joe Tess Fish House

December 7th, 2012
9:53 pm

Im a log time Flacon fan. I just dont drank the cool aid. I no beter. They have many prolbens that need corecting U must agree wioth that as Im not the only one ponting that out.

journalist jimmy smith

December 7th, 2012
10:30 pm

that guy writes like a pre madonna

DP

December 7th, 2012
10:50 pm

The biggest concern I have about the Falcons is that they’ve played by far the easiest schedule in the NFL, with an opponents winning percentage of .389 and only one team with a winning record (Denver) through 12 games. And only one of the 4 remaining opponents (the Giants at 7-5) currently has a winning record.

JSS

December 8th, 2012
12:57 am

Opium is like that, it clouds reality and makes flaws seem like minor road bumps instead of seeing the bridge out sign on the detours… http://www.flickr.com/photos/alan_cressler/5830532315/

Josh

December 8th, 2012
1:25 am

I get it about the easy schedule as though somehow that proves they haven’t be ‘really’ tested. But they’re 11-1 against an easy schedule. That’s what they’re supposed to do, right? What if they were 7-5 or 6-6? Would they be more proven if they lost? No. That’s stupid logic. So why do we fault them for winning games they should win? They can’t win for losing.

Josh

December 8th, 2012
1:25 am

Mora less Petrino

December 8th, 2012
3:08 am

Excellent analysis Jeff!

Looking ahead, would like to see the Birds get Barrett Jones, but doubt he’ll be available when the Falcons draft. He’d likely help the running game bump up the YPG.

Stinger2

December 8th, 2012
4:51 am

Joe Tess just wants attention. That is why he spells and writes so poorly obviously on purpose. He reminds me of GTBob who is always posting comments and remarks on UGA blogs that stir up UGA fans. Many UGA fans make the mistake of responding instead of ingoring him and he just keeps on with his nonsense.

cory dillinger

December 8th, 2012
5:07 am

Please stop with they have not beaten anybody with a winning record 3 of those teams the falcons have beat are 6-6 and the reason they have that record is because of losses to the falcons

redcoat

December 8th, 2012
5:18 am

JSS and Joe Tess……11-1, another successful season, and NFCS Champs already……what happened?…..How did they do it?

"Chef" Tim Dix

December 8th, 2012
6:25 am

Need to continue at full bore to avoid injuries.

Esquire

December 8th, 2012
7:31 am

@JSS
December 8th, 2012
12:57 am

WE KNEW YOU WERE ON SOMETHING. DON’T BOGART THAT BONG THERE LIL FELLA….!!

FAlco

December 8th, 2012
7:37 am

the falcons are the best team in the nfc and will roll through the playoffs. Super bowl—Atl v. Houston—book it!

Esquire

December 8th, 2012
7:56 am

I’m not worried about Matt Ryan at all. He’s playing at a high level period. If an incompletion here and there keep him from taking devastating shots then so be it.

Turner can run the ball like a bull, he needs to get those knees higher. Turner has much better success with a leading blocker rather than just searching for a hole.

Abraham is a monster. I love the safety blitz but somebody has to spy Cam this Sunday. I can’t say thank you enough to the organization for cutting loose “Take a Play Off” Ray. You don’t need anti-Fam sucking the life out of the locker room. What a waste of humanoid.

Run defense has been indomitable! These guys are putting some hats on some runners. Cam better gulp down some sliders when he takes off tomorrow.

Matt Bryant can hit every kick he tries inside 55 yards if he wants to. Some of those misses could have been a winning margin that we didn’t get but so far there is no glaring spotlight on him. Just keep swinging away.

Esquire

December 8th, 2012
8:01 am

“Chef” Tim Dix
December 8th, 2012
6:25 am

Need to continue at full bore to avoid injuries.
*************************************
I concur

Silver Fox

December 8th, 2012
8:24 am

And this is Stinger2 advising others to ignore Joe Tess and GTBob by not ignoring them….

I do agree, however, those fools deserve no note and responding to them just serves to encourage them.

UGA ECONOMICS MAJOR

December 8th, 2012
8:50 am

ATLANTA WILL BE IN THE SUPER BOWL// THIER IS SOMETHING DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS TEAM..more poised,experienced..and tough…they find ways to win

ItsMe

December 8th, 2012
9:18 am

Superbowl…you want to talk about superbowl…

You dang straight!!

Falcons 35

Broncos 28

Larry

December 8th, 2012
9:35 am

There are two reasons this team is 11-1: first, Matt Ryan; second, a tremendous upgrade in Defensive Coordinators. Otherwise, this team with the same undersized DL with zero pass rush as a unit, and possibly the weakest interior OL in the NFL is a 4-7 or 5-6 team YTD.

Matt’s NFL leading six, 4th quarter, game winning drives and NFL best 22 4th quarter, game winning drives in his nearly 5 total seasons masks a weak running game and OL.

Be grateful, Falcon Fans, without Ryan and instead with Vick, Leftwich or Harrington under center we enter tomorrow’s game probably 5-7 with little hope of the playoffs. But because of one Matt Ryan, we have been delivered already the division crown, the playoffs, and nearly insurmountable odds of home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

D man

December 8th, 2012
9:42 am

Falcons should dominate tomorrow like they did against the Saints last week. After all, this is a 3-8 team we are playing. Didn’t a Panther predict them going to the Superbowl? Auh yea!!!

Bills fan

December 8th, 2012
9:53 am

Got to agree with Josh @ 1:25. All the naysayers love to point out the flaws, but what’s to be said of bouncing back from these playoff disappointments? Teams are always gunning for the top teams and usually play their “A” game for the Falcons.

There is a lot to be said about character development even at this level, especially the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if they can come together and unite with greater intensity.

Seems like in this age of parity it often comes down to who wants it more or a turnover. Even pros fold under the pressure of the micropscope of the postseason.

Bills fan

December 8th, 2012
10:34 am

Jeff, thanks for another great piece. We take you for granted.

DP

December 8th, 2012
10:50 am

Of course you can’t fault the Falcons for their easy schedule, and 11-1 in the NFL is a great accomplishment no matter who you play. They haven’t been up and down like the Giants, though they have won a couple of games they probably shouldn’t have, like Carolina and Arizona. The issue is that the Falcons will see much better opponents in the playoffs and will need to play better than they have recently to win any playoff games.

Freddie

December 8th, 2012
11:52 am

To be honest, I think every game the Falcons have played has been a playoff game. Every team has been gunning for the Falcons and the Panthers will tomorrow as well. They’ve won all but one and that was by 4 points at the one yard line with a chance to be 12-0. Had the Falcons punched that ball in vs. the Saints then they would be 12-0 and that is an accomplishment all in itself. I think the Falcons are ready for the playoffs and they will step their game up when that time comes.

Freddie

December 8th, 2012
11:55 am

People want to bash the Falcons for not blowing teams out of the water, but I think that only can help come playoff time. Yeah teams may blow out the Raiders, Chiefs, Jaguars, and Browns, but come playoff time games are going to be close. Everyone in the playoffs is good. They all know how to win. Close games can only help you overcome adversity that you will face in the playoffs. If you’re blowing everyone out in the regular season, yeah it may be pretty, but once adversity hits how do you handle it? You’re so used to blowing teams out that once a close game hits you, you don’t know how to react. IMO these close wins can only benefit the Falcons heading into the playoffs. Knowing how to win them, and knowing how to react.

Dr. Warren

December 8th, 2012
11:58 am

One yard and three tries away from being 12-0 right now. That is a fantastic achievement and indicates that this is an exceptional team, as in T-E-A-M. I don’t care what the national media herd says.

Joe Tess Fish House

December 8th, 2012
1:13 pm

Dont every dout my alliegence 2 the Flacons thats why I so hard on them

Granny

December 8th, 2012
1:25 pm

The proof’s in the puddin. Now that recent games have meant things for the division (beat TB and keep them off their heels, beat NO just to prove they could do it), Matty Ice has turned into Matty Ice Cold, the Matty Ice of the first round playoff losses. Hopefully, having half of his passed hit some D-lineman’s arm (vs. the Cardinals) hasn’t made Matty afraid of throwing the ball in our pass-happy offensive game plan, the one that has stalled of late. Ryan needs to get his jitters out and his confidence back in the next 4 games, if the Falcons are going to make a run in the playoffs.

G-Buckman

December 8th, 2012
2:37 pm

The big thing I see missing from this analysis (which is otherwise right on) is the health of the
defensive backfield. Need to make sure Samuel and Moore are both up to full speed.

Hillbilly D

December 8th, 2012
4:34 pm

Numbers 2, 4 and to a lesser extent 3 are going to determine how far the go.

JSS

December 8th, 2012
4:46 pm

There goes Hillbilly D talking sensibly again!

Hillbilly D

December 8th, 2012
5:15 pm

Well, I’ve always marched to my own drummer. ;-D

JSS

December 8th, 2012
5:41 pm

You mean the one that’s can actually keep time? :-p
Rock on Hillbilly, you speak truthfully…

Whopper Dawg

December 8th, 2012
5:43 pm

Interesting. The same issues going into the draft and the season remain.

Ryan needs to take his game up a level and stay there.

Be able to run block and run consistently.

Find someone, anyone to help Abraham pass rush.

Samuel

December 8th, 2012
6:41 pm

Ok, sometimes the Falcons play down to the competition. Going forward, I like to see the Falcons win some of these remaining games by two touchdowns. The Falcons need to show that they can blowout teams too, and not always have to pull out the close one’s….

Hugh Jass

December 8th, 2012
7:04 pm

Shouldn’t Abraham at the end of this article said the Falcons ARE NOT settling?

Zack

December 8th, 2012
9:25 pm

Falcons are extremely overrated. The only team they beat with is winning record is the Broncos and that was the Broncos second game with a new QB and defensive coordinator. They have just barely beat some pretty bad teams. Falcons will probably lose to the Giants. They will definitely lose in their first playoff game. Just watch

Eric C.

December 8th, 2012
10:25 pm

Yep, it takes one to know one

Eric C.

December 8th, 2012
10:32 pm

Zack, wow…that is some incredible insight, please give us more.

This is the first time under Smith/Ryan that I feel the Falcons real focus is on the playoffs.

Fan since 66

December 8th, 2012
10:56 pm

I think that Zack will go the way of seenthisb4 and his ilk…once the Falcons prove they are up to the task, they go back to their cages and look for another blog to toss their venom upon. This is a Falcon team like I’ve never seen and I truly believe that they will make all their “real” fans proud.
Go Falcons!

Fan since 66

December 8th, 2012
11:05 pm

@JSS
Still trying to figure out what a photo of some bridge “to nowhere” has to do with the Falcons’ season. Seems like the Falcons have already crossed the NFC South Championship bridge, and are well on their way to the I-10 bridge leading to the Superdome!

SawThat1nce

December 9th, 2012
12:54 am

Sack @9:25pm………Peyton Manning is a new QB? haha……..”just barely beat”, they don’t give style points on wins, a W is a W.
That was also the Falcons 2nd game.
Get real.

SawThat1nce

December 9th, 2012
12:57 am

I guess they can not hope to improve on the OLine, until the season is over.
That is the weakest link on the Falcons squad, imo.

JamaalSweetvoice

December 9th, 2012
1:22 am

11-1. Argue that?

JSS

December 9th, 2012
1:38 am

“Road to Nowhere?” You really from Atlanta? That bridge is less than 2 miles from the Dome! You sound like those college football fans worrying about conference championships… It is about advancing, nothing else counts… You’re in no better shape than any team in the tournament. Get a bad matchup talent or scheme wise and just holler Geronimo!