For the third time in four years, the Atlanta Falcons have made the playoffs, and along with eleven other teams will have a chance to compete for the Lombardi Trophy this February. But Mike Smith's club, which is 0-2 in both postseason appearances during his tenure as head coach, will look to finally dispel their playoff demons and walk away with a win in the Meadowlands this Sunday.
On paper, there is no clear-cut or consensus winner in this one. Considering home-field advantage and any possible effect the weather might have on play, the Giants are slightly favored to beat the Falcons on Wild Card weekend. The Atlanta offense should certainly have their hands full, facing a Giant defense chock-full of talented pass rushers and a few individual standouts amongst the linebackers and secondary.
But what will it really take for the Falcons to win their first playoff game since 2004? The answer is obvious, but one that simply cannot be stressed enough. The key for the Falcons offense this weekend is without a doubt...
Establishing The Run With Michael Turner
The stats supporting this claim are pretty overwhelming. The Falcons are 9-1 in games where Turner carries the ball at least 19 times (the one exception being Week 10's overtime loss to the Saints). In games where Turner fails to reach that mark, Atlanta is 1-5 (the one win coming last week against the Bucs).
If you examine the root of the Falcons' prior post-season failures against Green Bay and, to a lesser extent, Arizona, the one glaring problem in these games has been Turner's apparent non-existence. In both games, Atlanta's star running back has totaled 81 yards on 28 carries. That's not just bad, that is poor.
If stopping the Atlanta Falcons is as simple as stopping Turner (and believe me, that's what most teams in the NFL believe these days), then Mike Mularkey needs to employ one of two options: A) get creative and mix up the playcalling (impossible, we've seen that fail against the Texans and Saints already) or B) squeeze some better play out of the five guys who Turner depends on the most. That's right, because for the Falcons to have success...
The Offensive Line Has To Play Clean And Angry
Clean because, if you haven't already noticed, the Falcons O-linemen have a nasty habit of committing penalties during a big play of any sort. After being the least-penalized team in 2010, the Falcons now rank near the middle of the league in terms of penalties. It's so noticeable because nothing makes a fan angrier than seeing a 15-yard catch by Tony Gonzalez on third down, only to hear "holding, Tyson Clabo" several seconds later.
They have to play well, because otherwise the pass-rushing trio of Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora will be a nightmare all game long. They can take over the game, and if Ryan isn't given a chance to settle down and work himself into a rhythm, well... you folks remember the Texans game, I'm sure.
The other noticeable change from last year has been the departure of Harvey Dahl. This used to be a notoriously "mean" unit, the type of line defenses hated to play. That may still be true, to some extent, according to Justin Tuck. But we saw last week against the Bucs that this offensive line is capable of dominating any team with a weak front seven.
The Falcons have allowed a whopping 59 runs to be stopped behind the line of scrimmage, and despite only allowing 26 sacks on the year, Matt Ryan has been hit 84 times (seventh-most in the league). They need consistent play out of the entire line, and especially Will Svitek, who will face the likes of Pierre-Paul and Tuck on Sunday.
New York's rushing defense is far from elite. They're currently giving up 121.2 rushing yards per game, and allowed 15 rushing touchdowns during the regular season. This group can dominate the Giants' front seven if they're on their "A" game. The only question is: will they? Another major area of concern on Sunday should be...
Matt Ryan (And His Receivers) Not Turning The Ball Over
Fumbles, interceptions, safeties, whatever. These are all things that have happened in his previous playoff appearances. I'm sure Tramon Williams' pick-six in the waning moments of the first half last year left some mental scarring.
It's pretty simple: you turn the ball over, and you will lose. Last week, the Buccaneers were living proof of how quickly turnovers can change the flow of the game in the blink of an eye. For the Falcons to win this game, Ryan cannot force any of his throws.
This concern also extends in a large part to the receiving corps, especially Roddy White. I can think of at least three instances off the top of my head in which White has bobbled the football or tipped it up into the air, thus turning a good throw into an interception. Bad Roddy! Don't do that! You're too good to lead the league in dropped passes.
Despite this, White has still managed to be a very consistent receiving threat throughout the season (1296 receiving yards speaks for itself). However, the last key for the offense will fall upon his counterpart...
Julio Jones, And His Ability To Create "Explosive" Plays
Although he only played in 13 games, the wideout from Alabama still almost eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards on the year. He's finally getting the hang of the offense at just the right time, scoring six touchdowns in the past four games. Some call him a "gamebreaker," an athlete, a freak of nature. Should this game become a shootout, the Falcons will have the firepower to do so if only for the presence of Julio Jones.
Simply getting the ball into his hands should be enough. Perhaps the biggest knock against the Giants is their shoddy secondary, which allows about 255 passing yards per game. Neither Aaron Ross nor Prince Amukamara have proven themselves to be consistent whatsoever in their zone coverage scheme (which slightly resembles the scheme run by Brian VanGorder).
With Roddy matched up against top corner Corey Webster, Julio should see plenty of chances to get open on Sunday and break off one of those game-changing runs he's become so great at making.
If Ryan and the Falcons offense can focus on these four points in preparation for their matchup with the Giants, I honestly believe Atlanta will come away with the victory.
**But since I'm being honest, this is a game I feel will be won by defense. Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, in which I will break down how the Falcons defense matches up with the likes of Eli Manning, Victor Cruz and the Giants offense.