Following wins over Oakland and Dallas, the corridors of the Georgia Dome echoed with joyful chants of "Six and Oh," and "Eight and Oh," respectively. On Sunday, the mood was decidedly more somber following a win over the Cardinals that didn't really feel like one at all. With the most difficult portion of Atlanta's schedule looming, their performance against Arizona on Sunday underscored plenty of questions about the viability of the Falcons as a playoff contender.
Yes, the Falcons are 9-1 and still very much on top of the NFC South, and are still at the front of the line for the top seed in the NFC. The sky is not really falling, not at this particular moment.
But, the weaknesses that have plagued the Falcons throughout this season--sloppy, halfhearted arm tackles, contributing to a wholly ineffective run defense; a completely unacceptable lack of a rushing game--have never been more evident than over the course of the last two games. This is troublesome, considering the schedule for the rest of the season.
The Falcons have some teams on the remaining schedule who are very successful on the ground. Next up, division rival Tampa Bay, where a running back with the absolute worst nickname in football, Doug "Muscle Hamster" Martin, is making everyone ask, "LeGarrette who?" The Bucs are averaging 128.9 rushing yards per game, taking pressure off of Josh Freeman, and facilitating success. On the other side of the ball, Michael Turner, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers will be working against the most successful run defense in the league, as Tampa Bay is currently allowing just 81.8 rushing yards per game. Statistically, this is not a good matchup, considering the weaknesses of the Falcons.
After that, the Falcons go into a primetime, nationally televised rematch with the Saints. I've seen no fewer than 20 commercials on NFL Network for it in the time I've spent writing this. New Orleans' defense is still allowing 157.8 rushing yards per game, but that didn't really matter for the Falcons in their first meeting, when Jacquizz Rodgers, Michael Turner and Matt Ryan combined for 46 yards rushing. Total. It's assumed that Darren Sproles will also be back on the field for the Saints, adding another rushing threat to an offense that absolutely took advantage of Atlanta's defensive weaknesses.
In week 14, the Falcons will have their third division game in a row, at Carolina. While the Falcons are finding ways to win games despite the circumstances, one could say that Carolina has been finding ways to lose. Their previous matchup was Michael Turner's best game of the season, with 103 rushing yards and 68 receiving yards.
After that, the Falcons take on the Giants, the Lions, and the Bucs again. Tough stretch.
Matt Ryan had an uncharacteristically terrible day against the Cardinals, and it is more than fair to assume that was just an anomaly. Arizona's defense is seriously good, and they played with purpose on Sunday. Three of Ryan's five interceptions were the result of tipped balls, and it is surprising that the Cardinals came up with all three of those picks. It just wasn't Ryan's day. It wasn't Mike Smith's day, either, as an ill-timed challenge flag on a Jason Snelling "fumble" that would have probably been overturned negated the automatic review.
There were some bright spots as well. Mike Nolan made defensive adjustments throughout the game, and they worked. The defense absolutely saved the day. Also, Pro Football Focus noted that Tyson Clabo had a particularly good game against Arizona's outside linebackers, and that he was the most successful run blocker against the Cardinals.
The fact that the Falcons found a way to win on Sunday does say a lot about the team. Teams generally don't win games in which they turn the ball over six times. It almost never happens. Yes, the Cardinals are offensively terrible, but this was a game that the Falcons should have lost, and they found a way to win, as they have so many times this season. Despite the weaknesses of the Falcons, and the challenges the rest of their schedule presents, their will to win is the most important intangible the Falcons possess this season. Let's hope it's enough.