Sizing Up the Competition

Kevin C. Cox

The Falcons are in a great position within the NFC South, and face just two teams that currently have winning records down the stretch. Take a look at Atlanta's next five games after the bye week.

The Falcons are in a great position in the NFC South, with two more wins at the moment than the other three teams in the division combined, and that is a beautiful thing. In addition, after the bye week, the Falcons will face only two teams (the Giants, and the Cardinals) that currently have winning records. This seems like an ideal scenario.

The Falcons have shown that they have what it takes to be successful, even under pressure. They’re facing some teams that are prone to costly turnovers, and some quarterbacks who make mistakes under pressure, which will likely provide some fun for the opportunistic Falcons defense. Atlanta will play the Saints, and their run defense--currently the worst in the league--twice, and also the Bucs, and their passing defense--currently 31st in the league--twice. The Falcons will have a lot of opportunities to exert their will over the remainder of the season.

But, despite the win/loss records and some of the statistical deficiencies of the remainder of the Falcons schedule, we all know that anything can happen on any given Sunday, and some of these teams with poor records are still doing a lot of things very well. Let’s take a glance at the next five games of the 2012 season.

Falcons vs. Eagles

Michael Vick is prone to costly mistakes and turnovers, and his offensive line is suspect, which exacerbates his tendencies. Vick has been sacked 17 times this season, and has thrown 8 interceptions, and just 8 TDs. Vick has also fumbled 9 times. This is a quarterback, much to the general delight of Falcons fans, that Atlanta should be able to prey upon. The Eagles are currently 31st in the league in average points per game, at 17.2.

The Eagles defense is allowing 330.8 yards per game, with just 7 sacks for the season. Philly is a hostile environment in which to play, but as long as the Falcons are aggressive enough to disrupt Vick, with some defensive balance to prevent Vick and LeSean McCoy from running all over them, the Falcons have the advantage in this game.

Cowboys vs. Falcons

Tony Romo is also prone to costly mistakes and turnovers, and he has thrown 7 TDs and 9 INTs. Romo has also been sacked 9 times. However, despite their struggles, and despite their 2-3 record, the Cowboys are 6th in the league for total offense, and 6th in passing yards. The Cowboys defense has ten sacks on the season, just one interception, and four forced fumbles. They have a lot of talent on that side of the ball, and they are pretty stout, particularly against the pass. They’re currently first in the league in that category, allowing just 181.6 passing yards per game.

It is good to catch the Cowboys in the Georgia Dome. The defense will need to get to Romo early and often, and the offensive line will need to adequately protect Matt Ryan so he can be effective against a strong pass defense.

Falcons vs. Saints

You can’t deny that this is not the same Saints team from recent years. The defense is abysmal so far this season, allowing an average of 456 yards per game each week. The Saints rushing defense is the worst in the league at the moment, allowing an average of 172.8 yards per game. The Falcons should try to take advantage of this weakness, and Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling will hopefully leave their mark on the Saints defense.

Drew Brees is still commandeering the Saints offense, and they are first in the league in passing yards and fourth in total offensive yards per game at the moment. They are a pass-first team, and their running game has not been much of a factor with an average of 86.5 yards per game, but Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas can all burn defenses, given the opportunity. Brees has been sacked 12 times so far this season, and certainly John Abraham is eager to add to that number.

Cardinals vs. Falcons

The Cardinals are one of the two teams the Falcons will face down the stretch that currently have winning records. Arizona’s defense is formidable, with 19 sacks on the season. It will be fundamentally important for the offensive line to adequately protect Matt Ryan. Their defense also has six interceptions, and seven forced fumbles. This is a team that capitalizes on the mistakes of their opponents. The Falcons offense will need to limit mistakes.

Arizona’s offense is pretty unimpressive, comparatively. The Cardinals are near the bottom of the league in average points per game, average offensive yards per game, passing yards per game, and rushing yards per game. This statistic is so staggering that it is difficult to even fathom--Kevin Kolb has been sacked 27 times. Clearly, there are some offensive line issues, and the Falcons defensive line will take advantage of it.

Falcons vs. Buccaneers

The Buccaneers are second in the NFC South with a record of 2-3. Josh Freeman is passing for an average of 211.6 yards per game, and Doug Martin has emerged as a decent running back. The Falcons will need to contain him. The Bucs made some big moves in the offseason, and the Falcons will need to adequately cover Vincent Jackson.

Tampa Bay’s defense is allowing 387.2 yards per game, and a lot of that consists of passing yards, because the Bucs have actually been good at limiting the run this season--they’re currently 4th in the league with an average of 75 rushing yards allowed per game.

The Falcons have what it takes to win each and every one of these games, particularly if they key in on the various weaknesses of their opponents and exploit them.

But, the Raiders reminded us last Sunday that any team can surprise you in the NFL. As the last undefeated team in the league, there is no doubt that every opponent, particularly within the division, will be looking to end that streak. The Falcons will have to be focused to maintain this level of success down the stretch.

What do you think the Falcons will do over these next five games? What are your predictions as far as wins and losses?

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