The holidays are all about family and togetherness. There is nothing quite like being forced to that togetherness by the National Football League with a team that you love to hate. That’s the Atlanta Falcons.
Mix a strong sibling rivalry with the burning self-resentment of a six game losing streak and you have the recipe for a feisty game that is absolutely meaningless to the rest of the NFL. To get the inside scoop on just how that recipe is going to turn out, I spoke with Dave Choate of our SB Nation sister blog, the Falcoholic.
Cat Scratch Reader: The Falcons might have a defense now. Where did that come from?
The Falcoholic: You may have been fooled into thinking so, but the foolery may continue for one more week. The Falcons have finally started to try a few different things, mixing in more and more effective blitzing and switching up snap counts a bit, but the biggest boost has been the return of linebacker Deion Jones. You get the sense that the Falcons might not have lost so many one score games had he been able to go all year, but alas.
Are the Falcons actually rounding into a decent defense? No, not yet. Their pass rush still goes hot and cold, their secondary is only decent every other week, and their run defense is apt to disappear into the ether at any time. I don’t think they’re all that far away from having a quality unit, but you shouldn’t give them too much credit just yet. If they continue to blitz effectively, though, I’m not going to deny that they can wrack up the sacks against your crummy offensive line.
CSR: Is that defense afraid of the great unknown (Taylor Heinicke)?
TF: Of course they are. Taylor Heinicke has wrestled bears in the Alps wearing a loincloth made of other bears, Desmond Trufant has heard. Taylor Heinicke once threw a football into space, and it’s currently making its way into the Oort Cloud, per Takk McKinley. Taylor Heinicke’s arms are 40 feet long and used to bring down ships, which is why he’s called The Kraken, if you listen to Damontae Kazee. He is a fearsome fellow.
More to the point, the Falcons have been terrible when the plan changes. They don’t have film on Heinicke and they really have no idea what to expect from him, so I’m certainly worried.
CSR: Julio Jones is going to be a game time decision, who would the Falcons lean on in his stead to make Matt Ryan look significantly better than he is?
TF: First of all, I see what you did there and it was not very holiday-spirited. I do not approve.
It’ll likely be Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper. Neither have been great while Julio’s been on fire over the last six weeks, but they’re reliable, sure-handed options who are effective over the middle, and the Falcons will likely need quick outs aplenty against Carolina. I’d love to see rookie Calvin Ridley get going again, but he’s had a rough stretch for several weeks with drops and a failure to get open, and I don’t see how that improves if Julio’s not on the field to help him out.
In rough order, then, expect to see Hooper, Sanu, running back Tevin Coleman, Ridley, and rookie receiver Russell Gage. Real murderer’s row there.
CSR: It sounds like the Falcons are going to make a lot of coaching changes at the assistant level this offseason. Would they like some replacements from the Panthers? I hear there will be some available.
TF: I think we’re good
CSR: This game features two teams that have vastly under-performed their expectations. How low should we set the bar when trying to predict this game?
TF: I think you can set it pretty low. Neither of these teams has a ton to play for except pride, and as we’ve seen to this point, pride isn’t exactly lighting a fire under either of them. The Falcons are firing assistants, the Panthers are firing at least some of their staff, and both of these teams need infusions of talent and drive to take the NFC South back from those black and gold barfbags down in New Orleans. The only thing you can honestly say is both of these teams are capable of playing good games, so we’ll probably get one now that it no longer matters in the slightest.