Time to wrap up the regular season.
It couldn't be a more anticlimactic game. The Buccaneers are terrible right now, having lost nine in a row and quitting on their belligerent coach, who is almost certainly getting fired when January 2nd rolls around. The Falcons are not in control of their own playoff destiny, and if the Lions beat the Packers, they could just decide to rest the starters. The Buccaneers may not even want to win this one for any reason besides pride, because a loss here would put them in position to get an elite player in the 2012 NFL Draft.
If the Lions do lose, though, this quickly becomes a critical game. The Falcons should push hard for the fifth seed in the NFC if at all possible, setting them up to avoid a rolling Saints squad and putting them against the winner of a shaky NFC East. For all their numerous flaws in 2011, if the Bucs have a chance to play spoiler for a division rival, they'll be gunning to do so. Mike Smith won't take these guys lightly.
Given the unique circumstances surrounding this game, our matchups today are going to be heavily focused not necessarily on what will help the Falcons win—I can tell you now it's Ryan passing well, Turner running well and the defense forcing turnovers—but what players have plum matchups and can set themselves up for bigger roles in the playoffs, 2012, and beyond.
After the jump, you'll find all four.
As Pro Football Focus noted, Trueblood is one of the worst pass-blocking tackles in the NFL today. He's incredibly bad at protecting Josh Freeman, and that's a big reason why Freeman's production has dropped so precipitously in 2011.
Enter Lawrence Sidbury. Ray Edwards is hurt and could miss this game, especially with the Falcons eyeing the playoffs. Edwards finishes the year as a dominant run-stopping end but a middling pass rusher. If he does sit out, he'll be replaced by some combination of Kroy Biermann and El Sid.
This is Sid's chance to shine. PFF provided the startling stat that the former Richmond Spider has 11 quarterback pressures in 62 snaps over the last six weeks. You have to take the tiny sample size into account, but those numbers stack up favorably against some of the elite pass rushers in the league. He's also among the team leaders in sacks with four, and that's with a very limited number of snaps to his name.
I want to see what Sid can do with a prime matchup. Kroy Biermann and John Abraham are no locks to return in 2012, and Sid's had enough seasoning to audition for a starting job next year, or at least a rotational one. A good game against Trueblood or his backup, Demar Dotson, would go a long way.
Spencer Adkins versus Kellen Winslow
There's a short list of things we know about Adkins. He's athletic, he's a capable enough tackler and he's played virtually no games since arriving in Atlanta. He's more than a bit of an enigma.
This is a team without elite coverage linebackers. Weatherspoon can handle it, Lofton's about average and Nicholas can come through at times, but the depth isn't promising. Mike Peterson can jump routes but may not return in 2012 and isn't anything special against the pass to begin with, while Akeem Dent projects as a classic run-stopper.
Adkins has the superior athleticism to make a difference against tight ends. Even if he's never more than a backup—and given the composition of the linebacking corps at the moment, that's more a likelihood than a possibility—he could still be valuable if he's able to parlay his athletic ability into coverage skills. Since he'll be starting this Sunday, we should get a good look at his ability against famed soldier Kellen Winslow Jr.
I'm excited to see what he can do, but I'm keeping my expectations relatively low.
Dominique Franks versus Whoever Dominique Franks Covers
Another interesting thing I noticed while reading Pro Football Focus: Brent Grimes is by far the best cover cornerback on the Falcons by their metrics. The worst? Dunta Robinson, followed by Chris Owens. Dunta haters, consider this your leg to stand on.
One who quietly grades out as not terrible is Franks, who is ranked just slightly below average. He's allowed a lot of deep passes, which isn't all that promising, but I've said since the moment he was drafted that Franks was an extremely intriguing project given his raw talent.
For the season so far, he's made a couple of athletic plays, including an interception and pass deflection. Franks is also physical enough to be a force if the Falcons ever decide to kill the soft zone off. More to the point, he's a much more natural nickel guy than Chris Owens, whose deep speed and ball skills make him a better fit outside.
There's virtually no chance Dunta's going anywhere in 2012, no matter what PFF and several thousand Falcons fans have to say about it. But Franks can carve out a larger role here, and he should get some playing time against the Buccaneers to make his case.
Julio Jones versus Whoever Covers Julio Jones
After that defensive buffet, I figured you might want a little offense.
I don't think Julio Jones has a ton to prove, unlike the other three guys on this list. He's come on strong after picking up the offense and getting over the injuries that plagued him earlier in the season, and it's not like the Buccaneers really have the means to stop him. But Jones is still growing into (we hope) the scariest offensive force in the NFL today.
It'll be nice to see him have another big game against Tampa Bay.