Today is the final game of what has been an absolutely miserable season for the Falcons. Currently sitting at 4-11 (although playing much better over the last four weeks), the Falcons season started with such promise of finishing what they started last year, and winning the Super Bowl. But there were a lot of concerns heading into the season, primarily on the offensive line, defensive line and the secondary.
No one really thought it would be too big of a deal because of Atlanta's incredibly well put together offense consisting of skill players Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Steven Jackson. Well, three of those players have all missed extended periods of time due to injury, with only Ryan and Gonzalez remaining healthy over the entire year. This has limited the Falcons offense, and caused Thomas Dimitroff's all in approach on offensive skill positions to backfire.
Injuries, bad coaching and poor play from many players (e.g. the fumbles of Harry Douglas, the poor coverage/tackling of Thomas DeCoud) have hurt any chances of the Falcons even remotely making the playoffs, let alone becoming Super Bowl contenders.
But now it all comes to an end today. The dreadful season will finally be put to bed, wrapped in a blanket of Falcons fans' tears, heartbreak and sorrow. But we unlucky in love Atlanta sports fans are all too familiar with this when it comes to our beloved sports teams.
Now the Falcons will head into the offseason with, at the very least, a top 10 draft pick. This will give GM Thomas Dimitroff an elite draft pick to work with, something he hasn't had since trading up to get Julio Jones in 2011.
It'll be interesting to see how the Falcons approach the offseason with a good amount of cap room and high draft picks. But first thing's first. It would be nice to finish strong against the hated Carolina Panthers in the Georgia Dome today, and send soon to be retired Tony Gonzalez off into the sunset with a win.
Here are three keys to today's game.
Reality is coming, and it's coming fast. The best tight end this franchise has ever seen will soon be gone in a mere 3 to 3 and a half hours after kick off. If ever there was a time for a fire to be lit under the Falcons, it would be now. Yes the season is over, yes there will be no postseason for the first time since 2009. But that doesn't mean you can't give it everything you have for number 88.
Look for the Falcons offense and defense to be the most fired up its been the entire year. They're going to be running on pure adrenaline and emotion. The Falcons played incredibly well against arguably the NFC's best team in San Francisco on Monday night. There's no reason to think they can't match that effort today against Carolina. With the added fuel of Gonzalez's final game and the better overall defensive and offensive execution, the Falcons are going to come out on fire today.
Whether they play with too much emotion is a question to ask oneself. Sometimes in sports, being too fired up means you don't use your head. That could happen here, but if the Falcons can rally around Gonzalez and wanting to send their division rival on the road in the playoffs with a loss, there's no reason to think that they couldn't pull off the upset.
The Falcons played Carolina very well in their first game until a nightmare of a fourth quarter led to a 34-10 drubbing at the hands of the Panthers in Charlotte. Our next key to the game needs to be executed upon in order for the Falcons to win today.
PLAY FOUR QUARTERS
The Falcons seem to play very well in the first and second quarter of a game (not always, but when they do play well, it's early). The Falcons are 28th in the league in points given up per game at 28.1. Most of the points come in the second half in games the Falcons should have won. This includes games against San Francisco and Green Bay in which the Falcons were up by at least a touchdown in the first half, only to watch their lead fade away in the second. Against San Francisco last week, the Falcons were up 10-3 at the half. In the second half, the 49ers scored 31 points to win 34-24. The Falcons were outscored 31-14 in the second half last week.
Against Green Bay, the Falcons were up 11 points at the half and scored all 21 of their points in the second quarter. The Packers outscored the Falcons 15-0 in the second half to win 22-21.
These are just two examples of this. We could write 1,000 words about how the Falcons just can't seem to put together anything on offense or defense in the second half, and it's been a problem over the last few seasons.
Today, it would be nice to see a complete, consistent effort. Something to have a little momentum heading into the offense to prove against one of the NFL's best defensive units that you can consistently put points up against them. Something to prove against one of the league's top rushing offenses that you too can make adjustments, and shut a team down.
STOP THE RUN
Both DeAngelo Williams and Cam Newton are having solid years running the football, with Williams compiling 810 yards on the year, and Newton having 513 yards. In the last game against Carolina, the Falcons gave up 131 yards on the ground to the Panthers as a team, but limited Williams to just 42 yards and Newton to just 22 yards.
It will be important for the Falcons to keep Williams and Newton in check on the ground and force Newton to throw the ball more. Carolina has only averaged 192.9 yards passing this year, and have mostly succeeded by pounding the ball with the run and playing outstanding defense (7th in passing, 2nd in rushing).
If the Falcons can take the run out of the equation for Carolina and really force them to air the ball out, it'll take away the best part of their offense away, and put more pressure on their defense to stop the Falcons.
Carolina's defense is tremendous and has won them a multitude of football games this year, but for the Falcons to keep the game close, they must shut down the run. This will lead to a low scoring defensive battle, and a closer game in which if you had to put the ball in either Cam Newton's or Matt Ryan's hands at the end of the game, you like your chances more with Ryan.
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