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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