I know I tend to overstate things, but this is a crucial game for the Atlanta Falcons.
Why? One reason is the strength of the opponent. The Falcons have won six games on the back of a terrific team effort, but have a disconcerting habit of not putting teams away until the last second. That's not going to work against the Baltimore Ravens, who haven't put it together offensively in 2010 but are a virtual powder keg of potential.
Another reason is this: The Falcons are playing for home field advantage in the playoffs. It's time to acknowledge that our Falcons are playoff favorites and should be favorites to win the NFC South, the nonstop fear that roils in our very bones notwithstanding. A 7-2 record with the mediocre Rams approaching next week puts them in excellent position to seize both titles, and puts them in striking distance of having the Georgia Dome as their stomping grounds through the playoffs. Given that this team is a fearsome collection of beasts in Atlanta, that's a great thing.
So this becomes an important game. I believe the Falcons can win it, but I'm awfully wary. If you'll join me after the jump, I'll highlight the matchups the Falcons must control if they are to triumph.
Michael Turner vs. Ravens Defense
Ask a Ravens fan which matchup they're afraid of and they'll tell you this one. Who am I to argue?
Once again, our hopes and dreams are riding with leg room on the Burner's enormous shoulders. The Ravens have Haloti Ngata up front but are weak at left end. The simple solution is to pound Turner over there in hopes that Baltimore will panic and start stacking up front, giving Matt Ryan room to pick them apart. The Falcons can't allow themselves to get caught in the trap of assuming that they can pass freely, because this is an opportunistic defense and they will hurt Matt Ryan.
Burner should have a nice game, is what I'm saying.
Falcons Interior Line vs. Haloti Ngata
For all his considerable potential, I don't want to imagine Joe Hawley facing off against Ngata. I don't particularly like the thought of Justin Blalock or Harvey Dahl doing it, either. Generally I'd just prefer Ngata was on another field somewhere, tackling a beer league softball team so hard he leaves craters. Alas, they'll probably give him directions to the Georgia Dome.
There's not much the Falcons can do except hope for great performances from McClure/Hawley, Blalock and Dahl. Ngata gets around pretty well for a big guy, so it's almost inevitable he'll be in the backfield a couple of times tonight. May Matt Ryan's release be swift.
Falcons Defense vs. Ray Rice
You look at Ray Rice's numbers this season and you scoff. Only four yards per carry? After the guy put up 5.3 yards last year? HA!
It's true that the Falcons have proven themselves as stout as a Swiss chocolatier against the run, but that's not the aspect of Rice's game that concerns me. Even if the Falcons clamp down on Anquan Boldin, Donte Stallworth and their cohorts, they've got to deal with the specter of Rice catching passes out of the backfield.
That's scary because the Falcons have never been good at stopping that sort of thing, and because Rice is a hard runner who can change direction on a dime. They need to dedicate a linebacker to watching Rice as much as humanly possible tonight. Speaking of receivers...
Falcons Secondary vs. Ravens Receivers
I know. But it's true that the Falcons secondary has been on shaky ground lately, and it's true that the Ravens have some real talent at receiver. That's not a great combination on the best of days, but when you add in the matchup problems that a hulking Boldin presents it gets a little tougher.
I'm not as worried about stopping the Ravens on the ground, but the bad news is that shutting them down there or getting out to a nice lead will lead to them airing it out. I don't like this matchup on paper at all, but with a little luck the secondary will get their collective poop together and get the job done. I hope.