Atlanta got off to a blazing 5-0 start and a playoff berth seemed like a near guarantee. However, the Falcons have only managed to win one of their last four games including two disappointing losses against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the San Francisco 49ers. Miscues on offense and an inability to convert in the redzone have killed the team in recent weeks. With two games remaining against the undefeated Carolina Panthers squad and a tough matchup on the horizon against the first place Minnesota Vikings, Sunday’s home game against a struggling Colts team without their starting quarterback seems like a must win if the Falcons want to advance to the postseason.
At 6-3, the Falcons sit two games ahead of a cluster of teams at 4-5, and many that are capable of stringing together a lot of wins. So far, Atlanta has been the beneficiary of scheduling. The Falcons have yet to play a team that is currently over .500 coming into week 11. That is not the case down the final stretch of the season. Aside from a road game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta does not play a single team with less than 4 wins and has three games against teams with more than 7 wins. The Colts have been able to feast on their historically bad division to stay afloat, and a surprising dismounting of the undefeated Broncos has them sitting tied atop their division.
A win for the Falcons would be a major step towards a wild card berth, but a loss would significantly lessen their margin for error. Although teams like the St.Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles all sit at 4-5, a Falcons loss would put them right back in the thick of things with a third of the season remaining. A Colts victory would certainly put them in control of their very weak division. Indianapolis seems to be a heavy favorite to win the AFC South, even at 4-5. Although, Houston’s victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last Monday made things a lot more interesting. A loss to the Falcons would put the Colts behind the 8-ball in that division for the first time in a long time.
Andrew Luck is out, but that certainly does not mean it will be any easier for the Falcons to pull out the victory. It was just a two weeks ago, that 49ers backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert led the 49ers to a win over Atlanta. Veteran quarterback Matt Hassleback will be starting for Colts for the third time this season. He is 2-0 in those two starts with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Albeit both of those came against much lesser opponents than the Falcons, but the Atlanta defense must be up to the task because Hassleback will not hand this game to them with mistakes.
On the other side of the ball, Atlanta has to find a way to reduce the errors. Penalties and turnovers are the doom for any football team, and Atlanta has had to find out the hard way. Matt Ryan and the offense have to find way to put the ball in the endzone when they are in the redzone, and running back Devonta Freeman needs to get back on track if the Falcons want to walk away with a victory. The Colts feature the 22nd run defense in the NFL, so Atlanta will look to establish the running attack with Freeman early in the game in order to open up Julio Jones and the rest of the Falcons receiving core. The return of Leanord Hankerson should help the offense a lot as well. Hankerson has 22 receptions for 291 yards and two touchdowns on the season.
Atlanta has found out the hard way in the last four weeks that no matter the circumstances there is no such thing as an easy win in the NFL. The Falcons have a perfect opportunity to tighten their grip on a wild card spot against another backup quarterback, but it will not matter who is at starting quarterback for the Colts if the offense cannot find their groove again. With a week off to prepare for both of these teams, it should be an interesting matchup in the Georgia Dome with major playoff implications.