The Falcons have played well so far, but they're going to have to kick it into gear if they expect to beat these upcoming teams in the race to home-field advantage in the NFC.
The Atlanta Falcons stand at 6-2 and are atop of the NFC South. So far the Falcons have played good football with some clutch performances from varying individuals. They have beaten some formidable foes, have remained somewhat healthy and are still yet to hit their stride.
Looking back over the past eight weeks the teams Atlanta has beaten have a combined 21-27 record (.438) which is not exactly the most daunting of opponents. In comparison teams like the Giants and Packers have achieved their 6-2 records against opponents with a combined of 17-31 (.354).
"So why," you ask with a Colbert raised eyebrow, "do the Giants and Packers get more respect than our fiery Falcons?" The answer is all politics really, and to be honest you must really look past current records, because after all this is a sixteen-game season folks.
Delving into the remaining schedule of the Falcons it becomes clearer that the Falcons face no easy task. Upcoming opponents for Atlanta have a combined 33-33 record (.500) while the Giants and Packers have records of 32-32 (.500) and 30-26 (.536) respectively remaining. So it seems that all three of these teams will be facing up-and-down schedules, having some easy and hard games to play. So rather than jibber-jab about the numbers let's take a closer look into each the Falcons remaining opponents.
Baltimore Ravens (6-2) 11th of November at home
We all circled this game on our calenders to finally see the matchup between the two best up-and-coming quarterbacks in Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Each person has held their speculations into who the better one is. Now while every media outlet will be focused on them, the true fan will be focusing on that daunting Ravens defense.
Baltimore is ranked ninth in total defense and ranked among the top 10 is most other categories. With Ed Reed back in the lineup the team has picked up several more interceptions giving Mr. Joe a short field to work with. While Ravens fans fuss about the fact that Matt Ryan has had Roddy White to bolster his numbers, they neglect to mention the fact they have had a top 10 defense for the past three years and Matt Ryan has not.
All in all this should be one hell of a game.
St. Louis Rams (4-4) 21st of November on the road
And while most circled the Ravens game, most also skimmed over the Rams on their way to the next one against Green Bay. St. Louis has won a surprising four games this year after winning only one the previous season. The team is rejuvenated by the new quarterback and system, once again showing what a "culture change" can do in the NFL.
Sam Bradford has been mildly surprising throwing for 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions posting a solid albeit not impressive 75.9 quarterback rating. A combination of a solid quarterback and bruising running back is one of terror not weakness as Steven Jackson runs back into form with 676 yards and two touchdowns.
The defense however is out of sight with a rank in total defense of 7th and a run defense of 8th. Do not take these Rams lightly.
Green Bay Packers (6-3) 28th of November at home
As we discussed before it seems that the race for the number one NFC seed will be interesting as the Falcons face both the Packers and Saints in the last eight games of the season. As the Packers roll into the dome many will look at them as an injury-riddled team that will be lucky just to make it to the game, but these Packers have shown fight in them.
While many of their key players are out (Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, Jermichael Finley and Brady Poppinga) they still possess a team willing to make a run at the playoffs. Add in the fact their division is wide open and I think you'll see a lot of hunger in them.
What scares me most about this team is probably two players. One, Aaron Rodgers and two, Clay Matthews. Rodgers, in my view, is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. With virtually no run game he has the green light to gun-sling as many throws as he wants. The scary part is that he is deadly accurate with the ball and his decision making is very sound.
Moving on to Clay Matthews there's little I have to say to make your spine shudder. The image of Matthews physically abusing Matt Ryan with Sam Baker sitting on his ass in the background makes my point.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-3) 5th of December on the road
Raheem Morris is sitting at home, biting his tongue, just waiting for his chance at redemption. Any time the Falcons go to Tampa Bay (particularly towards the end of the year) I get nervous. I still remember that god-awful day when the Falcons had the chance to post back-to-back winning seasons and make the playoffs with Michael Vick.
Oh wait, we achieved back-to-back winning seasons with a win in Tampa last year; never mind then. Still, this game will be very tough, and good for us fans too. I expect Raymond James to be rockin' and the Falcons to embrace the challenge.
We all know that Josh Freeman is good and we know they have a knack for big plays. The Falcons must limit those big plays because Tampa cannot play grind-it-out football. Don't let them have a sniff in the fourth quarter either; Josh Freeman is fairly decent in those situations.
Carolina Panthers (1-7) 12th of December on the road and 2nd of January at home
Oh boy what a fall for the Panthers. Since their embarrassment in the 2008 playoffs it seems Carolina has slowly fallen into mediocrity. I figured I'd put the two games together seeing as we play them twice.
It just hasn't been the Panthers year, a relatively young team, without a quarterback or any other figurehead for that matter. They're bottom in the league in most offensive categories and pretty mediocre against the run (they're 5th against the pass). I am still fearful of the two-headed monster that is DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart. However most of the team has had injuries and is not playing cohesively as a unit. Still, desperate teams play desperate brands of football and the Falcons cannot play down to their level. Atlanta has a problem of blowing out teams and that's exactly what you have to do against a mediocre outfit like the Panthers.
Seattle Seahawks (4-4) 19th of December on the road
Qwest Field, "The 12th Man," playoffs, these are all the phrases that will be associated with Seattle come the 19th of December. It's not too long ago that the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl battling it out with "Big Ben" and the Pittsburgh Steelers. These days however it seems that Seattle is going through a transition phase and all the while doing it by winning some football games.
In what is probably the weakest division in football, it will be no surprise to see Seattle in the thick of the playoff race. Last week excluded the Seahawks have been a dominant team at home and a terrible one on the road. Seeing as this one is in Seattle we can safely assume that it will be no gimmick.
Either Charlie Whitehurst or Matt Hasselbeck will be Seattle's quarterback, and neither is very good. If the Falcons can get pressure I fully expect Dunta Robinson to finally have his first pick of the season (that's right, week 15). Along with Hasselback the Seahawks have one of the worst offenses in the entire league, ranked 30th overall. Their defense isn't alot better either, ranked 27th, so it's surprising to see them 4-4 and in the race out west.
But once again it is the big-play capability of some of their players that has led them to that record, so the Falcons must once again treat them as a team that can grind it out.
New Orleans Saints (6-3) 27th of December at home
National television on a Monday night. this is where you earn the respect of Trent Dilfer and Peter King. Well maybe we don't really want to, but the point still remains. If the Falcons want the respect of the league? Do it on ESPN on Monday Night Football.
Several times the Falcons have had the Saints on MNF and have constantly failed to win. The importance of this match is amplified because the race to the top of the NFC will mostly likely be dependent on this game. We all know the Saints and their toughness and you can bet they'll be wanting to beat the Falcons on their turf after what happened in the Superdome earlier in the season.
At current the Saints are looking strong, very strong. They are ranked seventh in offense, third in defense, and first in scary factor. The Falcons will have to be playing their best football by this game because the gear they've been in up until now (the eighth game that is) will not cut it by this time.
Four home games and four road games with all but one in the NFC. It's going to be a very entertaining ride to the end of the season. Most of us already have been to our local doctor's office only to find out we have the heart of an 80-year-old and one more Falcons game could be the end of us. But we soldier on, as does the team.
All are winnable games. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Some are tougher than others, but the Falcons must realize that runs into the playoffs are built in November and December, not October. Which is why our current 6-2 record means nothing for the final remaining games.
Second-Half Season Record: 4-4
Final Record: 10-6