The Falcons are coming off of a solid, to put it mildly, performance against the New York Giants last Sunday, and will travel to Detroit to take on the 4-10 Lions at Ford Field on Saturday. If the Falcons win this game, they will lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Lions are better than their record implies. They locked up a wildcard spot in last year's playoffs, and most of us rooted for them to beat the Saints, although they didn't. The Lions are second in the league total offense, and first in passing offense, with 302 total yards per game. They are averaging 23.6 points per game. They are less successful running the ball, averaging 104.4 yards per game.
Detroit's Calvin Johnson, with 1,667 receiving yards on the season so far has a legitimate shot at breaking Jerry Rice's single-season record of 1,848 receiving yards. There's no doubt that he's a threat against any secondary. Atlanta's defense will need to pressure Matthew Stafford, and to give them time, Atlanta's secondary will have to cover Calvin Johnson adequately. According to Pro Football Focus (I'm mad at them for their skewed perspective on the beatdown the Falcons put on the Giants last week, but I still love their premium stats) Stafford bears responsibility for six of the 18 sacks he's taken this season. He's holding the ball too long when his receivers aren't open. Johnson has been limited in practice so far this week with a knee injury, but he will play, and he will be a factor for the Lions on Saturday. Brandon Pettigrew, another receiving target at tight end, has not practiced yet this week with an ankle injury.
Detroit's running game has not been very effective this season. Mikel Leshoure, the team's top rusher, has been limited in practice this week with a calf injury. Joique Bell has much fewer touches than Leshoure this season, but has more yards per carry, 5.2 compared to 3.8 for LeShoure. The Falcons cannot afford to let their guard down against the Lions when they run the ball.
Matthew Stafford is talented, but like most quarterbacks, his effectiveness plummets under pressure. Stafford averages a 59.5 completion percentage, but that drops to 43.8% under pressure. Stafford also has 15 touchdowns, compared with 17 interceptions, which makes this a potentially fun matchup for Atlanta's opportunistic defense. Unfortunately, William Moore may not have the chance to ruin Stafford's day, as he has been held out of practice all this week with the nagging hamstring injury.
The Lions are allowing 233.6 passing yards per game, and have allowed 21 passing touchdowns this season. Their defense is also pretty stingy on third downs, allowing just a 36% conversion rate. Starting free safety Louis Delmas and cornerback--and former Atlanta Falcon--Chris Houston are both listed on the injury report for this week. Houston is practicing fully with a hamstring injury, and Delmas is limited with a knee injury.
Detroit has sacked opposing quarterbacks 31 times this season, and once again, the Falcons will need to protect Matt Ryan in order to succeed on Saturday. They certainly managed well against the Giants. Detroit placed Nick Fairley on injured reserve earlier this week. Fairley had five sacks on the season, as well as eight hits and 21 hurries on quarterbacks, so his absence will hopefully make Saturday a little bit easier for Atlanta's offensive line.
Detroit's defense is pretty average against the run, allowing 119.4 yards per game on the ground. For comparison, the Falcons have allowed an average of 124.9 rushing yards per game. Being able to run the ball enough against the Lions will help keep the pressure off of Matt Ryan.
The Falcons certainly executed against the Giants on both sides of the ball, but we can't forget how they fared against the Panthers in the previous week. Consistency and momentum matter at this point of the season. Ford Field is a notoriously difficult place to play. It will be loud, and the Lions will want to redeem themselves from last week's ugly loss to Arizona. It would be ideal for the Falcons to start fast and take the crowd out of it early.
It's also reasonable to expect that there may be some bad blood between these teams. We all remember the terrifying ankle injury to Matt Ryan in last year's game in Detroit, which, thankfully, was not as bad as it looked, as he triumphantly returned to the field shortly thereafter. We remember the allegations of Detroit's defensive players taunting Ryan after the injury, from Roddy White, who talks a lot, and Todd McClure, who doesn't. We remember Ndamukong Suh declaring Ryan's injury "karma" for the "dirty" play of Atlanta's offensive line, proving that Suh understands neither the meaning of karma, nor the meaning of irony.
A significant concern going into this game is balancing the need to maintain momentum heading into the playoffs, and the desire to lock up home field advantage for the playoffs, and the absolute necessity of keeping Atlanta's players healthy enough to succeed in the playoffs.
What do you expect from the Falcons on Saturday?