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Four Critical Matchups In The Weeks Ahead

It's the bye week, so there's no specific game to profile here. Rather than abandon one of my favorite features, however, I decided it would be good to look ahead.

The Falcons have already navigated the toughest stretch of their schedule. They dropped one to a tough but inconsistent Bears team, squeaked out a win against a struggling but still formidable Eagles squad, lost to the Buccaneers and Packers and beat out a very tough Lions team. Aside from Seattle and arguably the Panthers, there wasn't an easy game to be found through the first seven weeks, and the Falcons came out of it with a 4-3 record.

Things get easier from here on out, with the exception of the Buccaneers, two games against the Saints and the mystifying Texans. The Falcons get to tee off on a terrible Colts team in Week 8 and have games against the Panthers, the Jaguars, the Vikings and Titans in that stretch. Win all of those games—and all of them are winnable—and you're looking at at least a 9-7 team.

In that group, four matchups loom especially large. After the jump, I'll look at each one in brief.

Falcons vs. Saints

The first round of the annual classic comes a little late this season, but it promises to be a hell of a matchup.

First of all, it's important because the Falcons need to make up ground on the Saints. The Buccaneers are fading fast and really don't look like a team that's going to hang in there for the long haul, though it would be foolish to underestimate them in Week 17. The Saints are in the driver's seat in the NFC South, though, and the Falcons need to win both games to have a realistic shot at dethroning them.

The Saints have gotten it done thanks to a powerful offense that gets better by the week. The Falcons will have to hold Drew Brees in check if they're going to win this one, which is no small feat. By mostly holding Matthew Stafford back in Week 7, they at least gave us hope they can do so.

Thankfully for the Falcons, the Saints have been a middling defense at best. They are ranked 16th against both the run and the pass and have struggled to shut down high octane offenses. If the Falcons can establish Turner and Matt Ryan has a good game, they'll hang a ton of points on the Saints.

Given that this game is at home, I think the Falcons will pull off the upset. With New Orleans, though, it's never gonna be easy.

Falcons vs. Texans

The Texans are, in my humble opinion, the scariest opponent left on the slate. Or they ought to be.

That Houston is just 4-3 on the year is a testament to how inconsistent and unlucky they've really been. This is a team ranked eighth in overall yardage on defense and seventh on offense, a team with Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster and a surprisingly effective D. They should be 5-2 or even 6-1, but they haven't put it together yet.

Still, they present a matchup nightmare for the Falcons. Foster is virtually unstoppable when he gets going, and once the Texans establish the run, Schaub will pick your secondary to death. The fact that they're a capable defense will in turn hurt Michael Turner, which in turn hurts the Falcons' passing game. This is the kind of tilt the Falcons have gotten blown out in before.

This is a game I see the Falcons dropping. A win here would be huge.

Falcons vs. Panthers

This should be an eminently winnable game, but I'm more concerned about it than I am the Buccaneers game at the end of the season.

Part of that is simply the field. The Falcons have to head to Bank of America Stadium for this one, while the Bucs have to come to the Georgia Dome in Week 17. The Bucs also don't have Cam Newton.

Newton's going to continue to grow as a quarterback as the weeks go by. The Falcons can't necessarily count on him making a bunch of boneheaded mistakes against them next time, and that's really what sealed the game the last time around.

The Falcons will need to apply pressure to Newton and get Turner going again in order to win, both of which they ought to be able to do. I have this down as a W, but the big play dynamic the Panthers' offense offers up cannot be ignored.

Falcons vs. Saints Redux

This one is much tougher because it's on the road, but the same logic applies. The Saints are the frontrunners in the NFC South and the Falcons need to beat them like a gumbo-eating stepchild to keep up the pace.

The blueprint is the same for both games. Force Brees to make mistakes, rush him relentlessly and dare the Saints to beat you with the run. While doing that, pummel them with Michael Turner. It's a simple formula, but a good one.

Do you agree that these are the four big matchups for the rest of the season?