2013 Atlanta Falcons Preview – Did They Let Their Super Bowl Window Close?

Julio Jones was on a roll in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.

Julio Jones was on a roll in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.

Think back to the second quarter of last year’s NFC Championship Game for a second. Julio Jones had just caught his second touchdown to put the Atlanta Falcons up 17-0. The crowd was into the game and after the comeback scare the Seattle Seahawks threw at them the week before, there was no way the 49ers were going to comeback. No way. They were just a little over 2 quarters away from Super Bowl XLVII….or so they thought.

The 49ers roared back to rob the Falcons of that trip. It looked like the maturation of the 5 year plan of Head Coach Mike Smith had fallen just short. Future Hall of Fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez stood before the media  saying goodbye. A great NFL season had come to an abrupt halt.

However it looks like the 5 year plan came with a one year option as the Falcons coaxed Gonzalez out of retiring. They replaced a slowing Michael Turner with former St Louis Ram Steven Jackson to increase offensive firepower. Talks are still ongoing with former Giant DE Osi Yumeniora, who lives in Atlanta by the way, to replace the departed John Abraham.  Then get this… since the Falcons have lost more free agents then they have signed they have been awarded four additional draft picks for this year. An extra fourth rounder and three seventh rounders for a total of 11 draft picks. Maybe this sixth year won’t be so bad after all.

Matt Ryan's 6th year is where he has to step into the league's elite in the playoffs.

Matt Ryan’s 6th year is where he has to step into the league’s elite in the playoffs.

Quarterback: Nowhere else can you look at a quarterback and say the future is now like you have to with Matt Ryan. Once we watched Joe Flacco break through to join the ranks of Super Bowl champion quarterbacks, just winning a playoff game is not enough. Although if you look at the playoff game he won he showed you why some still have question marks about him. In that game he was 24 of 35 for 250 yards 3TDs, but threw 2 interceptions that helped fuel Seattle’s comeback. He disappears in the middle of games and did so in the NFC Championship as well.

What leads to the upside is he did march the Falcons to his first playoff win after falling behind with :31 left to play. With a berth in the NFC  Championship at stake “Matty Ice” connected on 3 passes and put them in range of the winning field goal to escape 30-28. He led the Falcons on 6 last second winning drives like that in the regular season, so he is cool under fire.

For the season, his stats were spectacular completing 68.6% of his passes for a team record 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. Owner Arthur Blank succeeded in drafting a QB to be the face of the franchise after the Michael Vick era. However Ryan sat in that tier of “yeah-but” quarterbacks with Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, and Tony Romo as regular season statistical guys that hadn’t shown up in the post-season. Now that he’s in his prime and Flacco broke through that wall, he has to do so as well. He has to keep his intensity for the entire game and not wait until the last minute. At quarterback the Falcons are Super Bowl quality.

Jackson should be deadly in this offense.

Jackson should be deadly in this offense.

Offensive Backfield: The signing of former St Louis Ram running back Steven Jackson could be the move to put Atlanta over the top. Face it Michael Turner in recent years declined from being a good running back to a marginal ball carrier. He could only get the yardage the offensive line produced and nothing more. Evidence?? How about 3.6 yards per carry for the season??

Enter Steven Jackson. There was an overall feeling in previous years, throughout the league, that the Falcons weren’t a tough team. Jackson with his bruising style should change that completely. Although the Rams went to a passing offense he still made it to 1,042 yards in just 257 carries. In 7 of the last 8 seasons he has averaged 4.1 yards per carry or greater. That’s as the focal point of the offense.

Now he gets to line up with Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonalez as passing targets to free the running lanes?? Yikes!! He hasn’t had anywhere near that much talent around him before…trust us Danny Amendola doesn’t scare defensive co-ordinators. He should have a 1,400 yard season now that he has a chance at a Super Bowl ring. That hunger should feed the team’s urgency as well. Jacquizz Rodgers is the 3rd down / change of pace back who has some burst. Only going into his 3rd year he’s learning the game and is adept at slipping out and catching passes for 1st downs. They’re going to be playoff quality at least with Jason Snelling backing up Jackson as well.

One more year for the future Hall of Famer.

One more year for the future Hall of Famer.

Receivers: Just when NFC South defensive co-ordinators thought they could take a break, Atlanta drafts Julio Jones. Now they bring back Tony Gonzalez for another go ’round. By the way you do realize in 2010 Roddy White led the NFL with 115 receptions while being second in yards with 1389 yards right? That was 3 years ago?? Well last year White caught 92 passes for 1,351 yards and 7 touchdowns and may not be the best receiver on the team anymore. Julio Jones replaced him on the NFC Pro Bowl roster after a 79 catch  1,198 yard season where he scored 10 touchdowns. This is firepower!! Jones is only going into his 3rd season and benefits from the coverage afforded White and Gonzalez. Defenses can pick their poison because they are going to lose.

Which brings us to the slowing, aging veteran tight end in Tony Gonzalez. Wait a minute, what aging process?? He caught 93 passes for 930 yards and 8 touchdowns. He was voted All Pro and made the Pro Bowl. In all actuality, this may be the greatest group of traditional receivers (2WR / 1TE) in NFL history. It certainly is when it comes to production. These guys had 264 rec. for 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns. Compare this with the 1980 San Diego Chargers who had John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow when they had 242 receptions for 3,762 yards and 26 touchdowns. It’s certainly worth debating and for one more year this team is Super Bowl quality at the receiver position.

Offensive Line: One loss for Atlanta is the retirement of 14 year Center Todd McClure. However the line needs some improvement as evidenced by their fall to 29th in rushing with just over 1,300 yards. In contrast with the same cast of characters they were 12th in 2010 with almost 1900 yards. Look for a draft pick to be used to fortify the offensive line, whether a Center is drafted or a guard is picked. One will switch over to snap the football. They only allowed 28 sacks as a unit but frequently couldn’t push the pile on 3rd and 1 to keep drives going. Did you know that on 3rd or 4th and 1 including goal line, this group could only power for the first down or touchdown on 50% of rushing plays up the middle or to the strong side??

How much of that falls on the line and how much falls on the running backs?? Well since every running back ran for less than 4.0 yards per carry and the short yard percentages were 25th and 24th respectively, this group gets the blame. When it’s 3rd and 1, you don’t need Eric Dickerson to get that yard. It’s a matter of attitude and toughness at that point and this team needs to get tougher on the point when they run. Since they did get Matt Ryan hit 80 times passing the football this team gets an average grade on the offensive line. We have to see how they develop.

Defensive Line: Although there is speculation this team still hasn’t signed Osi Yumeniora or the replacement for John  Abraham yet. You have to understand they needed help to rush the passer anyway. Did you know that John Abraham not only didn’t record a sack in last year’s two playoff games, he didn’t produce 1 tackle?? You have to go back to the two losses to the Giants and Packers in 2011 and 2010 to find some postseason pass rush from him. Just one sack in each of those which turned out to be losses. Kroy Bierman (4 1/2 sacks) Jonathon Babineaux (3 1/2 sacks) and Vance Wlker (3 sacks) are the returning linemen. Just 10 sacks between them. The Falcons were 24th overall and 21st against the run and this group has to take the brunt of that as well.

The Falcons will need to draft some help and possibly sign two key free agents here. After watching this group get tortured trying to chase Russell Wilson who threw for a postseason rookie record of 385 yards against them, you see why Falcon’s Brass is making the change. That should have favored a John Abraham and it didn’t. This could be the group that sinks the Super Bowl aspirations of this team and is below average.

Weatherspoon is a fast heady player who should continue to get better.

Weatherspoon is a fast heady player who should continue to get better.

Linebackers: This is a speedy group that often gets linemen out on them when the team is run on. They have to shed blocks better and Sean Weatherspoon should have a breakout year going into his fourth season. Last year he tied Stephan Nicholas with 95 tackles for the team lead while compiling 3 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.This is with him missing 3 games last year.

Nicholas also garnered 2 sacks and an interception in his 6th season. Right now they are as good as it gets in the NFC South. These two are on the field for nearly every play including the Spread and Pistol formations. They just need to make a few more splash plays and force more turnovers to improve the defense from a statistical and tactical standpoint. With a little improvement this will be a playoff quality group.

Secondary: Last year the Falcons acquired Asante Samuel to help with the nickle slot receivers and insurance if they lost Brent Grimes or Dunta Robinson. Turns out Grimes went down with an injury and all Samuel did was intercept 5 passes returning them for 110 yards and 1 touchdown. What was amazing is the Falcons only had 7 total interceptions from their cornerbacks. Now Grimes and Robinson are elsewhere and Samuel is entrenched as a starter. Opposite him could be Robert McClain but he’s more of a journeyman than a starting cornerback. Look for the Falcons to make a move for a veteran here with a late summer pick up more than a draft choice since they’re trying to win now.

Samuel is the NFL's all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

Samuel is the NFL’s all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

The Falcons are better at safety where Thomas DeCoud (76 tackles / 6 ints) and William Moore (76 tackles / 4 ints) had a nose for the football. Each will support the run and tackle well in space. Since the Falcons have to manufacture a pass rush they’ll blitz their safeties as well. Both DeCoud and Moore recorded sacks last year. One of the reasons the Falcons were exposed in the secondary was the weak pass rush that left them in coverage too long. If they can shore that up this would be a playoff quality group, right now we have to leave their ranking as average.

Overall: The Chancellor of Football’s crystal ball comes down to the Falcons taking a trip to Seattle for the NFC Championship if the Falcons complete the moves necessary to move forward. Shore up the Center position, rush the quarterback better and give the ball to Steven Jackson to maintain drives like Michael Turner used to in years gone by. Matt Ryan needs to play complete games and not take 3rd quarters off and a better running game can aid from a tactical standpoint. Shore these up and they can make a run at history. Keep your eye on one or two defenders that get cut by other teams being scooped up to fill holes in the defense. Last year it worked with Samuel. For the 3rd straight year Taylor Blitz Times has the Atlanta Falcons headed for the conference championship…

They host RG III and the Redskins, Patriots, and Seattle again with the winner of that game possibly getting the homefield advantage. After that there are two away games that present problems. One trip to San Francisco and one to Green Bay, if the running game is intact each of those are very winnable. The Chancellor sees the Falcons with an 11-5 or a 12-4 record. They won’t go 13-3 again. It’s all lined up for them if they get the breaks and shore up their defensive front. Time will tell if Matt Ryan is going to make them a Super Bowl team.

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Falcons Clear Cap Space – Release Michael Turner, John Abraham, & Dunta Robinson

Abraham is now free to shop his wares on the open market as a free agent.

Abraham is now free to shop his wares on the open market as a free agent.

Some teams have to manipulate the salary cap by restructuring contracts of their top paid players. We’ve seen this with the restructuring of Tom Brady’s contract in New England & Ben Roethlisberger’s in Pittsburgh. However some teams have to part ways with players where a succession is in place or their production can be replaced for a lot less money. Such is the case in the Falcons releasing Turner, Abraham, and Robinson.

In the case of John Abraham he has been a good player with flashes of greatness yet disappeared in games for the Falcons. He’s been injured or nicked here and there and has missed 5 games in the last three years. Soon to be 35 his best years are definitely behind him. They should be able to replace the 10 sacks he had last year for a lot less money. Don’t forget he was drafted by the New York Jets in 2000, so he has some mileage. There are other pass rushers available in free agency that have more tread on their tires. Osi Yumeniora or Dwight Freeney as a situational pass rusher could do the trick.

As for Michael Turner he has slowed down tremendously over the last year. He hasn’t shown the burst that he had when he originally hit the scene down in Atlanta. Nevermind the fact he only rushed for 800 yards last year, look how far is average per rush has dropped. He only had a 3.6 yard average last year after 4.9 in 2009, to 4.1 in 2010, to 4.5 in 2011. While it’s true that all the Falcons runners had down years in terms of average yardage per rush, Turner was their battering ram coming off back to back 1,300 yard seasons. Now that he’s turning 31 they should be able to find a runner or two to fill that void. They’re saving $6.4 million with his release so they can even go into free agency or draft a young back if they need to.

Samuels came in as advertised.

Samuels came in as advertised.

With Dunta Robinson you need to look no further than the signing of Asante Samuel last year. When Brent Grimes went down Samuel stepped in and picked off 5 passes to lead all  Falcon cornerbacks and was second on the team to Thomas DeCoud with 6. With a healthy Brent Grimes returning from injury, Robinson who only defensed 8 passes and had 1 interception was expendable.

Sure they have to re-sign Grimes but these three roster cuts freed up over $16 million to put the Falcons more than $20 million under the cap. This was a healthy move for a team with serious designs on returning to the 2013 NFC Championship Game and beyond. They need to get more of an impact rusher and a serviceable back to do so, but now they have the money to acquire what they need. Abraham and Turner were diminishing returns if we’re talking late next season. There are no assurances in the NFL but these are good moves for the Falcons.

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

2012 NFC Championship Preview: San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons

The George Halas Trophy that is awarded to the NFC Champion.

The George Halas Trophy that is awarded to the NFC Champion.

Well we only have a few days left to see who will punch their ticket to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. San Francisco comes in riding the emotional high of having vanquished the Green Bay Packers, behind Colin Kaepernick’s record-setting performance. Where the Falcons are starting to understand who they are in winning their first playoff game under the current coaching regime. This is the most intriguing match-up of the conference finals weekend.

In the divisional round we learned what Atlanta has grown accustomed to do, will carry over into the playoffs. Including last week, they had gone 8-2 in games decided by 7 points or less. That lass loss was a meaningless game to conclude the regular season. If you go back to the 4th game of the season, it matched what took place in last week’s game with Seattle. They were behind 28-27 with less than 1:00 to go when Matt Ryan led them to a last second field goal and a 30-28 come from behind victory.

The banter and hard hitting between Seattle and Atlanta could spawn a bitter playoff rivalry.

The banter and hard hitting between Seattle and Atlanta could spawn a bitter playoff rivalry.

Sure the first victory came against the Carolina Panthers but now the Falcons performed the encore in  the playoffs. Many fans didn’t care what they did until they made it to the playoffs. Many were  sure they were going to lose their first game before the playoffs even began.  The Taylor Blitz Times believed in the Atlanta Falcons yet felt the Seahawks were playing better heading into last week’s game. However this was the game where “Matty Ice” and Coach Mike Smith came of age and won their first playoff game. Will they go into this conference championship brimming with the confidence of the team that left the field, or the tentative nervous bunch that watched a 20 point lead vanish in the fourth quarter??

One thing about the NFL playoffs, when the national media focuses on one aspect of a football team they normally overlook another. This is happening as we speak with all attention on Kaepernick, no one is covering the fact the 49ers are allowing 30 points per game on average in their last 4 games. In fact if you take out the win against the hapless Arizona Cardinals, that average jumps to 35.6!! What is happening to the great San Francisco defense??

Colin's 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Colin’s 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Remember the style of offense the Niners were running that kept their defense rested at the beginning of the season?? That isn’t the case any longer. For a team that finished 4th overall allowing 294.4 yards per game, it’s now allowing 406 to go with the 35.6 points given up in those 3!! Are you paying attention?? They are wearing out their own defense and now they have to go on the road for the NFC Championship Game. If you take out the 3 games we’re talking about, the 49ers gave up an average of just 256.6 yards per game in the other 14.

Now while everyone is giddy over the record-setting performance of the quarterback, let’s remember that happened at home. How did he fare in his last road game?? He was chased out of Seattle. Do we get that Kaepernick, or the one that torched the Patriots on Sunday night football?? Sandwiched between those two performances was a very forgettable road loss that is being ignored largely.

We said in our NFC South Preview https://taylorblitztimes.com/2012/08/27/2012-nfc-south-previews-predictions/ this was the time for Coach Smith’s 4 year plan to mature. Michael Turner is about to turn 30 and one of history’s finest tight ends in Tony Gonzalez is set to retire after the season. Now with the emergence of Jacquizz Rodgers as the change of pace back that can spell Michael Turner, the Falcons have more explosiveness on the field than with RB Jason Snelling. One of the unsung acquisitions that should pay off in this football game is CB Asante Samuel. He stepped in when Brent Grimes went down on IR and has been a key contributor. Do you realize that Samuel is the leading interceptor and yardage leader in NFL playoff history?? One lazy sideline pass can be disastrous against this group. They were the 5th most larcenist defense in the NFL with 20 interceptions and the Georgia Dome will be loud this Sunday.

Samuel is the NFL's all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

Samuel is the NFL’s all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

What was interesting was how slow the Packers were in adjusting in last week’s divisional playoff. This is the NFL and we have seen this type of quarterback before. Whether we’re talking 2002 Michael Vick, 1987 Steve Young, a 1987 John Elway, or a 1989 Randall Cunningham. The number one way to get after them were to clog their escape routes sending 5 to 6 rushers after them. After all, this defense has to chase Cam Newton twice a year so they’r equipped to do it. In Randall Cunningham’s case, the Los Angeles Rams confused him with everyone up on the line of scrimmage. By the time he knew who was rushing and who was dropping, his team fell behind and the game was out of reach.

The one thing going for the 49ers last week was the fact that it was quiet and Packer pass rushers couldn’t get the jump on their offensive tackles. Expect more delayed blitzes and zone blitzes this week to accompany John Abraham off the corner with all the Georgia Dome crowd noise. Instead of defenders with their backs to Kaepernick in man to man, they will be facing him and should keep scrambles at a minimum gain. The Falcons will look to get Colin to look down at running lanes and his vision off the downfield receivers. That is a big no-no in the NFL.

One other axiom of the NFL as Nick Buoniconti once said about the NFL playoffs circa 1987 “What happens the week before, doesn’t necessarily happen the next week.” Eric Dickerson ran for a playoff record 248 yards in a divisional playoff in 1985, then lost in the NFC Championship Game. Anthony Carter caught a playoff record 227 yards passing in a divisional playoff in 1987, only to lose in the NFC Championship Game. Peyton Manning threw for a record 457 yards (most ever in a regulation playoff game) in 2004 only to fall  in the divisional round against New England. You have the 1995 Buffalo Bills who rushed for a modern playoff record (post modern 1950 NFL) 341 yards in a Wild Card win over Miami, only to collapse in the AFC Divisional in Three Rivers. Then finally the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars who scored the most points (post modern 1950 NFL) with 62 in the AFC Dvisional playoff only to lose in the AFC Championship Game.

The 49ers are going to depend on that type of performance by Kaepernick again and won’t get it early as they fall behind. Just like the other teams that had record setting performances in year’s past. The Falcons have two unheralded linebackers in Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas that can flat out run. Not only will the Atlanta Falcons get the early lead after forcing a few 3 and outs early….they should win the game 30-21. Atlanta will be making the trip to New Orleans.

By the way….look at what arrived in Atlanta today…

This year's George Halas NFC Championship Trophy  just arrived today in Atlanta.

This year’s George Halas NFC Championship Trophy just arrived today in Atlanta.

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NFC Divisional Playoff: Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons

Marshawn Lynch is the key to Seattle playing well today.

Marshawn Lynch is the key to Seattle playing well today.

The NFL playoffs this year have provided some great theater and with last night’s performance by the 49ers, one team went to bed with the knowledge they have beaten that opponent, making Super Bowl aspirations more real. If you thought the Seattle Seahawks were brimming with confidence heading into this playoff tilt in Atlanta, now they have to guard against looking past Matt Ryan and crew.

The one thing the Falcons have done is gone 7-2 in games decided by 7 points or less. This Achille’s heal could come back and haunt Atlanta if they play too close to the vest with the Seahawks today. The one thing the Falcons have not been accused of, is being a physical ball club.  They have to dominate with Michael Turner rushing the football.

Russell Wilson gets to face the 24th best defense in the NFL. Last week the Seahawks fell behind by 14, and roared back to win. Everyone has looked at their road record over the season and it’s misleading. They now have won 3 straight on the road. Won 8 of their last 9 games with their signature win coming against the 49ers. A team that they only lost 13-6 to when they were learning how to play on the road in Candlestick. To know that’s their opponents in the NFC Championship team with a win??

The Chancellor of Football picks the Seattle Seahawks in this playoff game. This is supposed to be the fifth year and the time for the Falcon Super Bowl plan to take effect but they weren’t prepared for such a physical team with big corners ready to take on Roddy White and Julio Jones. However Browner and Sherman will be up to the task. We tried to alert you to this team in week 14: https://taylorblitztimes.com/2012/12/15/nfl-week-14-nfc-west-not-the-sole-province-of-the-49ers/ and then further back in week 3: https://taylorblitztimes.com/2012/09/21/nfl-week-3-nfc-west-not-just-the-province-of-the-49ers/. This team has grown over the season and is at it’s zenith now. Seattle will win this game.

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NFL Week 14: Atlanta Falcons v. Houston Texans – A Matter Of Perception

Jonathon Stewart and the Panthers took the Falcons  to school on Sunday.

Jonathon Stewart and the Panthers took the Falcons to school on Sunday.

As the NFL playoffs near, we see teams jockeying for playoff positioning,  and pundits making arguments for which teams will do well in the postseason. The Taylor Blitz Times is no different in that regard. The most interesting scenario that has occurred this season is no one believes in the teams with the best records. The Atlanta Falcons along with the Houston Texans were handed big losses and the chant of “over-rated” reverberated throughout the NFL fan-base via twitter &  facebook. Even NFL.com ran a story to this degree, however appearances can be deceiving.

If you look at the two teams and each loss, they’re very dissimilar. The Houston Texans took to a big stage to show the defending AFC Champion Patriots and the rest of the conference that they were to be taken serious. Homefield advantage throughout the playoffs is at stake and everyone watched them get obliterated 42-14, on Monday Night Football in a game where everyone had this date on the calender circled for months. The Falcons /Panthers game was nothing like that. It wasn’t one where Atlanta needed to prove themselves. They have already been to the playoffs four straight years and for the first time may have homefield throughout. They were just caught off guard by a division opponent who knows them and matches up well against them.

houston-texans-v-england-patriots-20121210-192412-399In their earlier match-up this season, Carolina had the chance to run out the clock on the Falcons, but a Cam Newton fumble under 2 minutes to go kept them from a game clinching first down. After a punt that pinned Atlanta to their own 10, Matt Ryan launched a 60 yard bomb to Roddy White on the next play which helped set up the game winning kick by Matt Bryant.  That 30-28 win established two things: The first is the Falcons’ ability to come from behind and win close games as they have all year. Do you realize the Falcons are 8-1 in games decided by 7 or less this season?? That is the mark of a champion.

The second, it established the Panthers as a team that could give Atlanta’s defense fits running right at them. Try to the tune of 199 yards, then 195 last Sunday, which allowed Carolina control of the clock and the line of scrimmage.

As each team gathered in their second loss, the buzzards started to circle. For us the real measure of what took place on Sunday and Monday Night, showed the Texans on the short end of the stick. They lined up against the team that played in last year’s Super Bowl and were beaten soundly. Most of the talk after last year’s playoff run was “Well if we would have had Matt Schaub…” Last week, they had him and he turned in a lackluster 19 of 32 for 232 yards and 1 interception performance. It didn’t seem he was as big as the game they were playing, lacking leadership and fight throughout. Nevermind his earlier Pro Bowl status…this was the proving ground for him and his team. You had Arian Foster, who has led the NFL in rushing and all he could muster was a 15 carry 46 yard performance. Hell teammate Ben Tate ran for that much in garbage time. Once you include Andre Johnson, none of the vital signs for Houston were functioning when the clock struck zero.

In the game with the Patriots, the Texans had their manhood taken and the only way to get it back is to take it back. Coach Kubiak has to use that as motivation to get this team ready for the playoffs. Their confidence has to be shaken…

As for the Falcons, Coach Smith needs to keep the ship steady yet find out what has happened to their offensive rhythm. In the last two weeks they have averaged 322.5 yards per game when in the previous 4 weeks the average was 421.5. That translates into a time of possession difference that may make the Falcons more beatable than in the season’s first 10 weeks. Each has work to do but the psychological fallout from the loss in New England gives the Houston Texans the tougher hill to climb.

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NFL Week 8: NFC South- Shipyards

Doug Martin exploded onto the NFL scene last Thursday night.

When viewing the vessels of a shipyard, we see units that are being built initially or those that are retooling for an endeavor that requires additional equipment. In some instances like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the ability to navigate choppy waters has become easier with the addition of a new outboard engine in the form of rookie RB Doug Martin. Up until last week’s game against Minnesota, the offense was rudderless depending on a passing game that moved the ball in fits and starts. Bouyed by Doug Martin’ dynamic performance (135 yd rushing / 79 yds rec.) their offense rolled throughout in a dominating 36-17 performance. http://www.nfl.com/voting/players-air-and-ground/2012/REG/8?module=HP11_content_stream_voting_fedex#playerId:0ap2000000085516

In their last two games, Martin has gained 336 yards of total offense and scored 3 touchdowns. Something was discovered 3 weeks ago during the team’s bye week. Head Coach Greg Schiano must have been hit in the head and mistaken his young running back for Ray Rice, whom he coached in college. In that time he has turned to his rookie runner more and the team has averaged 34 points per game ever since as compared to 20.5 over the first four weeks. Undoubtedly the game is slowing for Martin who has adjusted to the speed of the NFL. With back to back games coming against the struggling Raiders and Chargers, who just lost to Cleveland (seriously?), this team could be 5-4 and winners of 3 out of 4 before they take on Carolina and Atlanta in pivotal divisional match-ups. If any of you have been following the feud between the Bucs and Atlanta, you will not want to miss that game.

Before we go there, lets take a look at the standings:

South Division

W

L

T

PCT

PF

PA

HOME

ROAD

DIV

CONF

STRK

LAST5

Atlanta Falcons Falcons 7 0 0 1.000 201 130 3-0 4-0 1-0 3-0 W7 5-0
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Buccaneers 3 4 0 .429 184 153 2-2 1-2 1-1 2-4 W1 2-3
New Orleans Saints Saints 2 5 0 .286 190 216 1-2 1-3 1-1 1-3 L1 2-3
Carolina Panthers Panthers 1 6 0 .143 128 167 1-3 0-3 1-2 1-6 L5 0-5

Leaving the shipyard and headed for uncharted waters sail the Atlanta Falcons. What has been interesting over the last two months is how few want to recognize them as the best team in the NFC or the NFL for that matter. The key to becoming a champion in the NFL is winning the close games. Especially those against lesser teams who are hard to get up for, or in last week’s match-up with the Philadelphia Eagles, a wounded dangerous team desperate for a win. Over the last few years, games of the latter category gave the Falcons problems. This time they came out with purpose and were up on the Eagles 24-7 before Andy Reid’s team knew what hit them.

Michael Turner helped the Falcons control the tempo of the game with 24 carries.

Even more remarkable was the fact in 13 seasons, Reid’s team were 13-0 coming off of bye weeks. Although the Falcons have a 3 game lead in the division, they took this road game very serious and set the tone from the outset. Philadelphia’s big name secondary was lit up by Julio Jones who had 5 receptions for 123 yards and scored from 63 yards out. Matt Ryan was 22 for 29 for 263 yards and 3TDs and is having an MVP type season. Do you realize Matt Ryan had a career high 29 touchdown passes last year yet is on pace for 39 this season??

This was a big road win that showed how this team and coaching staff is maturing. Pundits and fans have scoffed at their early playoff exits of the last few years but this team is playing with a gritty resolve not seen in previous seasons. Last week’s game against the Eagles was the type of game the Falcons would inexplicably not show up. Exhibit A: Last year during the second half they could solidify themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, yet lost a game to the Houston Texans and were swept by the New Orleans Saints in a five week stretch. Those could have been confidence building wins yet left the team doubting itself. That doubt showed in the 24-2 ouster in the playoffs by the world champion Giants.

However this year we have Exhibit B: They held off Peyton Manning and the Broncos in a Monday night thriller 27-21. They knocked back a Washington Redskin team which is a mirror image of who they once were 24-17 and now this win. These wins against quality teams are those that have you believing in yourselves by season’s end. Especially when you can step on a team that desperately needs a win and you perform that feat on the road. Naysayers will conclude they haven’t played other top-tier teams but that isn’t the Falcons issue. Just keep winning games and building confidence for the playoffs. Food for thought?? Once upon a time, there was a Miami Dolphin team that went 14-0 in the regular season and won the Super Bowl. They only beat 3 teams that year with a winning record…so don’t listen to the idiot pundits who miss this.

Now we have to talk about Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. Looking at their record the quarterback is the first to get the blame when truth be told, Newton has given the team four 4th quarter leads this season. The fact their defense keeps letting the team down is what everyone is missing. Nevermind the frustrated press conferences of Cam Newton. Head Coach Ron Rivera may be sunk if his team gives up any more 4th quarter leads. It may be in the Panthers best interest to pick up a receiver before the trade deadline to help open up the offense. With Steve Smith (35 rec. 589 yards/ ZERO TDs) they have a good mid-range receiver. They need someone to blow the top off the defense to back the safeties back from the running game. Everyone knows the Panther offense can be defensed 20 yards and in. Once they can get a deep receiver this could open up the offense both running and passing. They still have time to right the ship…they just have some work to do.

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