Falcons face crucial stretch

Matt Ryan and the Falcons have a tough few weeks to save the season.

The Falcons loss Sunday in New York dropped the season record to 2-3. Considering the way the schedule falls, this was a pivotal game, particularly since the Falcons had a chance to win and had the lead until the Giants mounted a 20-point comeback to win by 10 points.

It also didn’t help matters that New Orleans and Carolina both won on Sunday. The Panthers (3-2) now lead Atlanta by one game, while the Saints and Falcons are now tied at 2-3.

Atlanta will now host Chicago this Sunday at 4:25. The Bears have lost two in a row and have given up 69 combined points to the Packers and Panthers. The Falcons will need to force quarterback Jay Cutler into making mistakes. He had two interceptions in each of the last two games that were both losses.

But then the team remains away from the Georgia Dome for a while. It will be six weeks before the Falcons play in Georgia again, November 23 against the Cleveland Browns.

The extended ‘road trip’ will begin with a game in Baltimore against the Ravens on October 19. The Ravens have had trouble defending the pass, so perhaps Matt Ryan can do some damage in that game. However, Baltimore’s offense has played very well this season. Former Carolina Panther Steve Smith has been a huge acquisition.

Then the Falcons have the ‘home’ game in London against the Lions. Atlanta’s challenged secondary will have to face quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Detroit’s defense has also played much better this season, ranking fourth in rush defense and fifth in pass defense.

What can the Falcons do in those three games? The reason that is important is after the bye week on November 2, the Falcons will then have two straight road game against NFC South opponents – at Tampa Bay on November 9 and then at Carolina on November 16. That stretch will undoubtedly determine whether the Falcons will have any chance at the postseason.

Atlanta cannot get behind in these next six weeks and expect to finish strong, particularly with a tough schedule down the stretch. The last five games of the season include games against four teams with winning records right now (Arizona, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Carolina). The only game with a losing record the Falcons will play in the final quarter of the season is in New Orleans, and we know how tough that game will be regardless of the records involved.

So these next three games, before the bye week, could be crucial in determining Atlanta’s playoff hopes. But it certainly would have been helped if the Falcons had won on Sunday in New York.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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