The Atlanta Falcons face a must-win game Sunday at the Georgia Dome when they host the Indianapolis Colts. Yes, it’s just November 22, but this game is a must-win for the Falcons.
But why is this game so important? There are still seven games left in Atlanta’s season. Shouldn’t we wait at least another month to deem a game this important?
No, the Falcons cannot wait. The urgency is needed now. They started the season 5-0, but the last month has presented some issues. They’ve lost three of the last four and sit at 6-3, three games back of the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South.
The NFC is getting a little crowded in the middle of the standings. With Carolina’s big lead, the Falcons will likely fight for one of the two wildcard spots. Atlanta has a tough home game next week with the surging Minnesota Vikings, so they can’t worry about stopping a cold snap against a team that is a division leader.
They need to do it Sunday against the Colts, especially with Indianapolis’ quarterback, Andrew Luck, out with a lacerated kidney. The Colts will instead go with 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck. How horrible would it be to lose to a 4-5 team led by an old quarterback?
Atlanta’s defense must find some pass rush to make life difficult for Hasselbeck, who still has skills. The Falcons have made some changes on the defensive line, moving O’Brien Schofield to the more-crucial right side on the end. Rookie Vic Beasley will now not have the pressure of sacking the quarterback, something neither he nor his teammates have been very good at this season.
But it’s Atlanta’s offense that is the concern. After scoring 32.4 points per game during the five-game winning streak to start the season, the Falcons’ offense has gone silent. Atlanta has scored just 16.8 points per game in this touch 1-3 stretch, raising some questions about new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system.
The Falcons have the quarterback (Matt Ryan) with the fifth-most passing yards in the NFL, the running back (Devonta Freeman) with the third-most rushing yards and the wide receiver (Julio Jones) with the second-most receiving yards. And yet, the offense has stalled.
Shanahan is in love with Jones, and admitted this week his offense wants to target Jones as much as possible. Hey, it’s understandable. Jones is a great player. But that reliance on Jones has left veteran receiver Roddy White out of the game plan. White has caught just 17 passes all season. He has averaged 88 catches per year in the last eight seasons.
White being out of the strategy seems to have made Ryan uncomfortable. Maybe it’s not that, but something has been a bit off with Ryan for the last month. Go back to even the win over the Redskins in week five, and the offense has just not been right. Ryan has not been as sharp, almost like he’s taking longer than expected to adjust to Shanahan’s system.
The Falcons have the running game, as Freeman has been a pleasant surprise. But Freeman must bounce back from a dismal performance two weeks ago against San Francisco when he had 12 yards on 12 carries. If he struggles and makes Atlanta’s offense one-dimensional again, the Falcons could be in trouble.
So Atlanta better not wait on this becoming an even-more crucial situation. Sunday’s game with the Colts needs to be when the Falcons turn things around. If not, they could be a rare NFL team that starts the season 5-0 but is at home watching the playoffs in January.
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 email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.