What do you get when you combine a dominant ground game, a solid defense and an untested third string quarterback?
If you answered either the Houston Texans or The Aristocrats, I will accept it.
The Texans are a fascinating matchup for any number of reasons. They're 8-3 and have put together a strong defense after having one of the worst in the NFL a year ago. They lost Matt Schaub for the year and then lost backup Matt Leinart halfway through his first start. They now have T.J. Yates at quarterback, but make up for that with the hydra that is noted philosopher Arian Foster and fellow back Ben Tate.
Given that the Falcons have a dominant run defense, this looks like a winnable game. But the Texans didn't get to 8-3 by accident and will be one of the biggest challenges left on the schedule for the 7-4 Falcons. That's going to be true even if Matt Ryan remains in prime form and the run defense can work its usual magic. It'll even be true if T.J. (predictably) struggles a bit.
After the jump, one big question, three smaller ones and a prediction for the game.
The Biggest Question
Will the Falcons have success moving the ball against a very competent Texans defense?
This is a big question. The Texans have 35 sacks and 13 interceptions this year and are ranked first overall in total defense, and that's without Super Mario Williams for much of the year. The addition of cornerback Jonathan Joseph helped them out in a big way, and their generally young D has gelled nicely. They are one of the most effective defenses in the league, to put a fine point on it.
The Falcons have had mixed success against quality defenses in 2011. When they can't get Michael Turner going, they lean heavily on the pass game. That worked very well against a kitten-like Vikings pass defense, but a one-dimensional game won't fly in Houston. The Falcons will have to dig in with a balanced attack to come out of this one alive.
The good news is that the team is capable of doing so. Matt Ryan has steadily improved as the season has ground on, as has Roddy White and the Falcons' pass protection. With Turner grinding out yardage, they should be able to make something happen.
Don't expect this one to be turnover-free, however. The Texans have forced close to 50 this season and will be gunning hard for more.
Three Smaller Questions
Question One: Can the Falcons stop Arian Foster and Ben Tate?
The Texans' two-headed rushing attack is arguably their best asset. Foster takes a pounding week-in, week-out as the bellcow back, but he's been a little less effective as a runner in 2011 than his breakout 2010. He's a brilliant pass-catcher out of the backfield, however, and the Falcons will have to account for that with their linebackers.
Tate is virtually no threat as a receiver, but he's a powerful runner who has eaten away at Foster's carry total this season and is currently averaging over five yards a carry. He's a genuine threat.
The Falcons have a borderline elite run defense this season, but have struggled to stop power runners and receivers out of the backfield. Both of those issues will be fully exploited by the Texans, so Brian Van Gorder will have to scheme creatively to take care of the Foster & Tate Show.
Question Two: How will T.J. Yates do against the Falcons' depleted secondary?
With Brent Grimes out and Kelvin Hayden also unlikely to play, the Falcons will be down to Dunta Robinson, Chris Owens, Dominique Franks and Darrin Walls at cornerback. It's an ideal time for T.J. Yates to be facing them.
The problem is that Yates is a bit of an unknown. He's got excellent size and a decent arm, and there were some draft analysts who considered him a major sleeper. But he's still a bit raw and the Texans aren't going to ask him to do much more than check down to Foster and find crazily elite wide receiver Andre Johnson on Sunday.
It ought to be interesting to see if Yates can put together a decent game against the Falcons' secondary, or if they'll ravage him regardless.
Question Three: Will Michael Turner be healthy?
Red flags went up all over my brainscape when I saw that Turner was nursing a groin injury. There's almost no chance the team holds him out of this game, but I do have to wonder if he's going to be 100%.
Given the Texans' defense, it might be a wise idea to not take any chances in the first place. Give Turner 15 carries or so if he's running reasonably well and get Jacquizz Rodgers more involved. He's the bigger home run threat and will help take a little heat off of Turner, at least in my reckoning.
Not to sound like a total homer, but I think with the Texans short Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, the Falcons can pull this one out. Gonna be awfully close, though. I'll say 24-21 Falcons.