Atlanta & Detroit Race To The Finish

Atlanta hosts Jacksonville tonight (8:15 ET, NFL) and the Falcons, along with the Detroit Lions are looking to make the final three-week push to the playoffs. With 8-5 records both Atlanta and Detroit control the race for the NFC’s two wild-card berths. Today the Notebook takes a look at both teams and their remaining schedule…

Atlanta: For having as many weapons as they do, the Falcon offense hasn’t always hit on all cylinders and they’re in the lower half of the NFC in points scored, being equally mediocre both running and throwing. The positive is that they do give Matt Ryan pretty good protection and defensively they’re solid and consistent, with the only problem being the inconsistency a talented front four has shown in pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

When it comes to making noise in January the biggest thing the Falcons have going for them is their upside. An offense led by Ryan, with Michael Turner in the backfield, and able to target Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez is more than capable of going off for a big day. The fact White hasn’t had a very good year doesn’t mean can’t do it. The same goes for the defensive front. Across the line you have Ray Edwards and John Abraham on the ends, both who have been good pass rushers in the past. Justin Babineaux has been solid in providing some heat up the middle and Corey Peters is stout at the other tackle. Finally, in spite of a disappointing loss at Houston last week, the Falcons have played their best football of late.  A scenario the NFC favorites would surely like to avoid is having Atlanta come in as the #6 seed, a circumstance that sets them up for a visit to either San Francisco or New Orleans and potentially followed by a revenge trip to Green Bay, after the Packers blasted them out of last year’s playoffs when it was Green Bay as the sleeper six-seed with the talent to peak at the right time.

That’s all down the road. When it comes to making the playoffs, the biggest thing the Falcons have going for them is their schedule. In addition to tonight, they host Tampa Bay in Week 17. Win those two games and it won’t matter what happens the Monday Night after Christmas in New Orleans.

Detroit: As long as the ball is in the air, the Lions are fine. An offense that ranks 3rd in the NFC scoring points does it without the help of a running game, thanks to the perpetual injury problems of both Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith. It’s the latter who now holds the hopes of the Detroit rush offense in his hands the rest of the way. Matthew Stafford has shown what he can do when he’s healthy, vindicating the Lions for taking him with the #1 pick in the 2008 NFL draft and making critics like the Notebook look foolish. Stafford throws the ball as well as anyone in the NFC not named Rodgers or Brees.

Defensively it’s more of the same. Detroit gets after the quarterback and ranks well in pass defense, but the rush defense is the NFC’s worst. For a team with this kind of talent on the front four that’s absolutely unacceptable. Even if you allow that pass rushing and defending the run are different animals entirely, it’s imperative that Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamakong Suh and Cliff Avril become complete players. Detroit won’t make it past the second round if they can’t run or stop the run, and even getting to that point won’t be easy. The remaining schedule shows road trips to Oakland and Green Bay and a home date with San Diego. Presuming the Packers are going to play to win in Week 17 in Lambeau Field, I don’t see how you concede any more than one win to Detroit and losing the last three is a distinct possibility. It’s time to batten down the hatches and survive the stretch drive in Motown.