The Falcons only have two truly challenging games left on their schedule in 2011. This is the first one.
You can't expect the Houston Texans to just roll over. Sure, their division is terrible and they're basically guaranteed a playoff spot if they don't spontaneously implode. But they want this bad, and they really only need two more wins to lock it up. T.J. Yates or no T.J. Yates, they'll be throwing haymakers all day Sunday.
The Falcons have a lot at stake. If they're going to make the playoffs, they're probably going to have to win at least 10 games, and 11 is the more likely number. That means they can ill afford any losses with a road game against the Saints on tap in a few weeks, and that should mean they'll be playing a hungry, hungry game of football against the Texans.
Expect this to be a brutal game, in other words. If you want the skinny on four important matchups, paddle over the falls with me.
The Texans have some targets. Joel Dressen, for example. Arian Foster out of the backfield. That one guy with the hands who catches stuff. Those guys are all going to be thrown at Sunday.
The one the Falcons need to watch out for is Andre Johnson. Injuries have cost him some time this season, but Johnson remains one of the league's true elite wide receivers, a difference-maker with size, speed and sticky hands who is a nightmare for opposing cornerbacks.
Dunta Robinson will draw the honors here, and it ought to be a good matchup. Robinson's facing his old team, he's quietly turned in a pretty great season and he's physical enough to give Johnson problems. Make no mistake, though: This one will keep me up tonight.
Arian Foster versus Sean Weatherspoon
It seems like I've been featuring 'Spoon in all of these posts this season, but it's with good reason. He's a devastating Spoonami against the run this year.
With Foster, the challenge is greater than it was with Toby Gerhart a week ago. He's a better, more instinctive runner, for one thing. He's also a capable receiver who is averaging more than 10 yards per reception. That makes him a true challenge.
Once again, 'Spoon is the most likely defender to put a stop to all that. The Falcons won't necessarily tell him to shadow Foster around the field, but he's developed a knack for diagnosing plays and is sure to be hot on Foster's heels. The Falcons will be counting on him and Curtis Lofton to pump the brakes on the Texans' rushing and short passing attack.
Matt Bosher versus Texans Returners
It's not a total coincidence that Matt Bosher's rapid improvement came around the time the Falcons started reeling off a winning streak. Last week, he was utterly dominant, averaging 50 yards a punt and drilling kicks deep into the back of the end zone. As a result, the Falcons won the field position battle all day long, minus Percy Harvin's heroic return that was aided and abetted by poor special teams coverage.
Doing the same on Sunday will make a huge difference. The Texans' kick returner is Sherrick McManis, who has done a good job in limited opportunities, and their punt returner is the dangerous Jacboy Jones. If Bosher keeps his fine form going, the Texans should have longer fields, and with a unexperienced quarterback under center, that can only be a good thing for the Falcons.
Roddy White versus Jonathan Joseph
This ought to be an interesting matchup.
White is one of the hardest receivers in the NFL to cover, thanks to his teleportation skills. Joseph is a borderline elite cornerback who will be shadowing White all day long, so there should be some fireworks.
The Falcons have the advantage of having a lot of other targets to throw to, but Matt Ryan still loves him some Roddy. We'll see how it goes.
What are the matchups you'll be watching?