No one would have ever guessed that a Week 17 matchup between the 6-9 Atlanta Falcons and 6-8-1 Carolina Panthers would have so much at stake.
The winner takes the NFC South and locks up the final playoff spot in the conference.
It’s strange to say, but the 4-6 Atlanta Falcons are leading the NFC South.
With a 19-17 win over the Carolina Panthers coupled with a New Orleans Saints 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Falcons are sitting atop the division.
It seems absurd for the 3-6 Atlanta Falcons and 3-6-1 Carolina Panthers to be in the thick of race for the NFC South, but that’s the case as the New Orleans Saints lead the division with a 4-6 record. And if the Saints lose to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it will be either the Falcons or the Panthers atop the division.
The Atlanta Falcons came up short in their attempt to send Tony Gonzalez off with a win as they fell 21-20 to the Carolina Panthers.
Allowing Matt Ryan to be sacked nine times – four times by defensive end Greg Hardy, who posted a Panthers team single-game record – isn’t exactly a recipe for earning a victory.
The Atlanta Falcons were forced to fill three roster spots after injuries ended the seasons of two players (Kroy Biermann and Bradie Ewing) and forced Sean Weatherspoon to be placed on injured reserve-designated to return.
To offset the blows to the linebacking corps, the Falcons signed former Philadelphia Eagles Jamar Chaney and Omar Gaither.
Chaney, a seventh-round pick in 2010, spent three years with the Eagles before being cut after the third game this past preseason. He started a 23 of 44 games, amassing 158 tackles, one sack, three interceptions, and one forced fumble.
Gaither was a fifth-round pick in 2006, and he spent five years with the Eagles. He played with the Carolina Panthers in 2011, and last played for the Oakland Raiders in 2012. He was cut by the Raiders in For his career, Gaither has 334 total tackles, six sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles.
The Falcons also called up fullback Patrick DiMarco from the practice squad to fill the roster spot vacated by Ewing.
Since its inception in 2002, the NFC South has yet to have a back-to-back division champion.
The Atlanta Falcons could very well be the first team in the division to achieve that feat, however.
There’s no question the Falcons boast one of the best offenses in the league. The addition of an extremely capable running back in Steven Jackson combined with an already deadly passing offense led by Matt Ryan means the Falcons will pose a lot of problems for opposing defenses.
The Falcons problems lie on the defensive side of the ball. And really, the team poised to stand in the way of the Falcons winning the division crown for the second year in the row is the New Orleans Saints. Like the Falcons, they have issues on defense.
As it stands now, the Carolina Panthers nor the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t appear ready to put up a fight for the division. I understand I’m discounting them, but I’m looking at their respective quarterbacks. Although Cam Newton played well the latter part of the season, he’s yet to show he’s there mentally. For the Panthers to pose a threat, he needs to step up.
Bucs head coach Greg Schiano reportedly isn’t sold on Josh Freeman. And he shouldn’t be. The quarterback had a scorching start to the season, including a five-week stretch in he passed for 13 touchdowns and just one interception. However, he then fizzled out after and went Weeks 12-17 by passing for just six touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
With those two teams eliminated from the race, the Falcons have to worry about the Saints who will be getting head coach Sean Payton back after he was suspended for his role in the bounty program.
The road to another division crown will be tough. The Falcons’ schedule will be considerably more difficult this year. However, if there’s a year for a team to finally get consecutive division championships, it’s this year.
It’s the first time the Atlanta Falcons will host an NFC Championship Game, and it’s the second consecutive year the San Francisco 49ers will appear in said game.
Last year, the 49ers hosted the championship game and lost 20-17 to the New York Giants. There’s little doubt San Francisco (12-4-1) will look for that extra nudge to get over the hump and earn themselves a trip to Super Bowl XLVII.
I’ll go ahead and say this: I was a big fan of Mike Smith electing to play the starters throughout the game.
In 2010, the Falcons blew out the Carolina Panthers 31-10, and the starters were pulled after the third quarter. Last season, the Falcons jumped on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as soon as the game started and took a 42-7 by halftime. Some of the starters were pulled after they took a 42-0 lead in the second quarter.
Saturday night’s match-up features two teams going in opposite directions.
The Atlanta Falcons (12-2) are coming off a huge blowout victory over the New York Giants. On the other hand, the Detroit Lions (4-10) were blown out by the Arizona Cardinals.
The Lions are currently on a six-game skid and clearly have no shot at the playoffs. Thus, their focus has shifted to helping Calvin Johnson break Jerry Rice’s record for receiving yards in a season.