As we gear up for Week 11, it's worth taking a close look at where the Falcons and Colts stand. Both are struggling football teams in the thick of the playoff race, but for those similarities, there are a couple of key differences. Those differences are that the Falcons are a better football team and a healthier one at the moment, and I expect that to make a huge difference in this game.
With Andrew Luck at the helm and healthy, and with Mike Adams in the secondary, the Colts present a tough challenge. With Matt Hasselbeck and a backup safety, they're still a team capable of scoring plenty of points and bottling up the Falcons, but things have to break their way a bit more. It's incumbent on the Falcons to stop playing mistake-laden, uninspiring football and leave the Georgia Dome with a 7-3 record Sunday. If they manage to lose this one in sloppy fashion, yeah, we're gonna start seriously talking about what needs to be done for 2016.
Here's how each team can prevail Sunday.
It's all got to click on offense. The Falcons need to pass the ball effectively, run the ball effectively, and finally turn those long drives into scoring territory into touchdowns. They need to play a crisp, energetic brand of football that we haven't seen from them in over a month, and they need to do so from the opening drive to the closing seconds.
That sounds simplistic and overly general because it is, in a sense, but we can no longer take those outcomes for granted. The Falcons haven't been able to pass that effectively, and the offense stagnates whenever Julio Jones or Devonta Freeman aren't heavily involved. Against a defense that's arguably even weaker than San Francisco's—and remember, the 49ers made the Falcons look pretty foolish—there's a little room for experimentation. With the potential scoring from the Colts' offense, there's not very much room for error.
Establishing the run is priority #1, because it makes the play action more effective, opens up the passing game in general, and allows the Falcons to pick up buckets of yardage. Devonta Freeman is perfectly capable of having a big game if the offensive line can spring him, and this is not an overly inspiring run defense, so getting him involved early and often makes sense. From there, I hope Kyle Shanahan does not fall into the trap of forcing targets to Julio Jones at all costs against a very competent cornerback in Vontae Davis, and uses the return of Leonard Hankerson as a spark for spreading the ball around a little bit more. Matt Ryan will need to resolve some of his accuracy and decision-making issues over the last month to get there, but again, this is not an overly intimidating defense. He should have time in the pocket, and needs to use it well.
Defensively, the Falcons have to shut down the passing game, preferably through a turnover or two and the revival of the often dormant pass rush. The ground game features a still-effective Frank Gore, but outside of a few decent rumbles here and there, I think Atlanta's perfectly capable of holding this rushing attack in check, and doesn't need to sacrifice its pass rushing prospects to do so.
Locking down T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and the tight ends is priority #1. Matt Hasselbeck can't escape the pocket like he used to and will be a sitting duck for even the Falcons' lame pressure if he can't find an open man, which means Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Jalen Collins and the safeties must play very well to take some of those very effective passing options out of the game. The biggest threat from there will be Hasselbeck finding those infuriating dumpoffs to Gore that have bedeviled the Falcons all season, but I'll still take that out over Hilton busting loose for a long score.
The Falcons played turnover-free football against the 49ers, but they didn't play mistake-free, well-executed football. That's what it'll take to win this game.
As I mentioned above, Indianapolis is going to have to pass to win. They'll want to give Gore the ball, in particular, because he's a still effective runner with physicality, and they need to keep Atlanta from completely keying in on the pass. I don't think either team is under any illusions that the Colts are going to run their way to victory, however.
It'll be important for Indy's offensive line to hold up for Hasselbeck's sake. With these receivers and his still-sharp ability to read a defense, he can keep the Colts moving effectively and put touchdowns on the board, provided he has the time in the pocket necessary to do so. If the Falcons start collapsing the pocket and getting in his face, the calculus changes in a hurry, because Hasselbeck can't motor away from pressure and isn't a threat to take off running. If the Colts can buy him a few seconds in the pocket on a regular basis, he'll have a nice day, and he'll keep them in it.
The Colts will also want to do everything in their power to get T.Y.. Hilton on Jalen Collins as often as possible. Heck, they'll settle for Moncrief over there. Either way, you've got to attack the weakest of the three cornerbacks likely to be on the field for most of the Falcons' defensive snaps, and right now that's the talented but still-learning Collins. When those guys are covered, attack the middle of the field and force the linebackers to make a play. The thing I'm most worried about from Indy is the sort of steady, clock-chewing passing attack that New Orleans used to such great effect against Atlanta, even if Hasselbeck isn't exactly Drew Brees.
Defensively, I don't know what the Colts are going to do in order to contain Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman aside from putting a couple of extra guys up front, having a safety help Davis out with Julio, and daring Matt Ryan to throw elsewhere to beat them. That strategy will backfire if the team has resolved to spread out the ball more and players like Hankerson and Roddy White are actually open and on Ryan's speed dial, but as always when playing the Falcons, you've got to try to hit Ryan and take away the playmakers.
Ultimately, I do expect this to be a close game, and I think Indianapolis will have us grinding our teeth all day. I do expect a Falcons win, though. How about you?