Four short days after leaving Tampa Bay with a victory, the Falcons return to action tonight against the Saints. Like I stated earlier in the week, this is a huge game for both teams involved.
For the Saints, this contest could determine their fate as they try to claw their way to a wild card spot. At 5-6, whether or not they beat Atlanta would be the difference between a .500 record and a solid chance at the playoffs; or a 5-7 record and a steep, uphill battle.
For the Falcons, this game is about proving they're as good as their 10-1 record indicates. New Orleans has owned Atlanta in recent years (winning 11 of 13 since 2006), and the Falcons could go a long way towards showing the football world that this team is for real if they can take down their bitter rival. A win tonight would also give the Birds a lot of much-needed momentum heading into next week's matchup against the Giants.
Atlanta Historically Successful in Short Weeks
While football teams generally like to have lots of time to regroup between games, the Falcons seem to do just fine on short rest. Atlanta defeated both Tampa and Baltimore in a five-day span back in 2010, and did the same to the Panthers and Jaguars last year.
"We've done it before so we understand what it takes to get yourself prepared on a short week," Matt Ryan said. "Your mental focus has to be better than what it is during a regular week because you're not going to have the same amount of reps physically that you'll usually get. I think everybody's focus has been really good so far this week and it needs to stay that way."
Rodgers Emerging as Falcons' Top Running Back
It's no secret that the Falcons offense has evolved drastically this season, and a good portion of this change can be attributed to the struggles of former Pro Bowler Michael Turner. In addition to taking a more pass-heavy approach, Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith have begun to utilize Jacquizz Rodgers in lieu of Turner—and it's starting to pay off. The Oregon State alumnus had 49 yards on 10 carries last week, and a touchdown as well. Even though Rodgers' 5' 6'' frame may make it impossible for him to turn into a full-time back, he can certainly handle 10-15 carries a game and take some of the pressure off Turner. It also helps that the two are very different runners—Turner being bulky and powerful, Rodgers being quick and shifty—and swapping the two in and out can help keep opposing defenses off-balance.
Dunta Robinson Playing on the Edge
With Brent Grimes lost for the season and Asante Samuel hurt with a bum shoulder, the Falcons are going to need Dunta Robinson to continue to play at a high level. Acquired via free agency in 2010, Robinson has become one of Atlanta's most physical players on either side of the ball, and his coverage skills have gotten better in time. If Samuel is a no-go tonight*, Robinson will need to aid Robert McClain and Chris Owens as much as possible in stopping the dangerous Saints passing attack.
"I knew coming in I was going to get chances to make plays and I knew I had to take advantage of it," Robinson said during the team's open locker room session with the media before practice. He did not practice on Tuesday because of what Smith said was an illness. "So when they called my number, I just tried to go out and make a play. That's what happens. That's the beauty of this defense. Different weeks, different guys' numbers are called, they're stepping up to the plate on this defense. We have to have the same result Thursday night."
Falcons Could Clinch Playoff Spot This Weekend
While it may be unlikely, Atlanta could wake up on Monday morning as NFC South Champions—or at least with a guaranteed postseason berth. If the Falcons beat the Saints tonight, they win the division as long as Tampa Bay loses or ties against Denver. The division could also be had if the Falcons tie and the Bucs lose. If Atlanta wins and Seattle loses or ties, they clinch a playoff spot regardless of Tampa's outcome. In the event of a tie between Atlanta and New Orleans, they could still secure a spot in the NFC's top six if both Minnesota and Seattle lose.
Saints' Smith Remembers White's Comments
Roddy White has never been shy about vocalizing his thoughts, and that quality seems to have left an impression on Saints defensive end Will Smith. The Atlanta receiver said that the Nov. 12 matchup between Atlanta and New Orleans was "nothing (the Saints) did," which left Smith a bit perturbed.
"Roddy has a problem with saying things without thinking," Smith said Tuesday afternoon, sending this week's first bulletin board quote in the direction of the Georgia Dome, where these NFC South rivals will play Thursday night. He should have thought about that knowing we have to play them again. Anything could happen."
*As of 8 p.m. Wednesday night, the Falcons have yet to determine whether or not Samuel will play against the Saints.