Atlanta Falcons (6-4) at Detroit Lions (4-6)
KICKOFF: Thursday, 12:30 ET
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
SERIES: 31st regular season meeting between the Lions and Atlanta. The Lions
have dominated the series, 22-8, including last year's 17-10 win. The
Falcons came into that game with a 4-1 record.
2005 RANKINGS: Falcons: offense 11th (1st rush, 27th pass); defense 16th
(22nd rush, 14th pass). Lions: offense 27th (23rd rush, 25th pass); defense
11th (15th rush, 12th pass)
PREDICTION: Lions 23-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: If either team wants to sparks their fading playoff hopes, they must play with more discipline. The Lions were penalized 17 times last Sunday while the Falcons were flagged a season-high 11 times. The Lions should receive a boost from the return of CB Dre Bly, but in an effort to keep the Falcons guessing Detroit coach Steve Mariucci will not name his starting quarterback until Thursday. But the key for the Lions will be developing a strong running game, otherwise Atlanta's top-ranked ground game will control the clock and wear the Lions down. Falcons QB Michael Vick completed nine consecutive third-down situations during last Sunday's loss. Detroit's chances hinge greatly on the ability to stop the run on early downs and force Vick to attack their ballhawking secondary in third-and-long situations.
FAST FACTS: Falcons: Are 3-14 all-time in Detroit, but this is their
game at Ford Field. ... Have never played on Thanksgiving. Lions: Lead the series 22-8. ... Will play host to a Thanksgiving Day game for the 61st consecutive year.
--WR Roddy White welcomes the chance to become a "go-to" guy for QB Michael Vick. He did an excellent job against Tampa Bay of separating from coverage and making difficult catches in traffic.
--WR Michael Jenkins also had his stock rise as a primary target. He
borrowed a page from TE Alge Crumpler's repertoire to make an acrobatic catch that beat Ronde Barber for a 21-yard completion early in the second quarter.
--RB T.J. Duckett can't wait to play his first professional game in
Michigan, the state in which he starred as a high school player in Kalamazoo and later in East Lansing for Michigan State. Duckett returned two kickoffs last week to try and jumpstart the return game, but Atlanta arrives in Detroit with the NFL's worst average with specialist Allen Rossum struggling and his blockers clogging lanes.
--QB Matt Schaub wore an oversized gray Virginia Tech T-shirt,
compliments of Michael Vick, after the Hokies crushed Virginia, his alma
mater, last week. "Worst thing I've ever worn," Schaub said. "It makes me sick."
--S Ronnie Heard continues to take lots of snaps in the defense's "heavy" package that also includes Keion Carpenter and Bryan Scott. RCB Jason Webster leaves the field when coordinator Ed Donatell believes Heard could help against the run.
--CB Dre' Bly says he expects to be back in his starting RCB position
Thursday against Atlanta after missing four games with wrist surgery. Bly was cleared by doctors to play but will still have to wear a cast on his right wrist. Bly has four of the Lions' 13 interceptions.
--LB Boss Bailey, who missed the Lions game Sunday in Dallas with a
sprained right ankle, will probably get playing time in their game against
Atlanta on Thursday.
--QB Joey Harrington said he and Jeff Garcia "split" the reps with the
Lions first offense in practice Tuesday, but said he does not know whether it will be he or Garcia in the starting job Thursday against Atlanta. Garcia is coming off a broken and then re-injured left leg but coach Steve Mariucci won't say whether Garcia or Harrington will start.
--FS Terrence Holt, who missed the Lions' loss Sunday at Dallas with a sore back, returned to practice Tuesday and indicated to reporters that he expects to play Thursday against Atlanta.
--QB Jeff Garcia, who got two starts before re-injuring his
previously-broken left fibula, split the reps with Joey Harrington in the
Lions' practice Tuesday in preparation for their Thanksgiving Day game
against Atlanta. Coach Steve Mariucci isn't saying whether Garcia or
Harrington will get the job.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Keith Brooking had burned him on the previous series, so Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden vowed he wouldn't put Chris Simms in a position to win or lose a critical NFC South game last week in Atlanta.
Simms was in the fourth quarter of his sixth career start when Brooking jumped to intercept a pass that led to the Falcons' go-ahead touchdown. As he sent Simms onto the field with 7:30 remaining, Gruden's plan was simple: Give the ball to Carnell Williams and let him run it straight through the heart of Atlanta's defense.
"That was a methodical drive," Brooking said Wednesday. "They had two tight ends, two backs and just ran the ball right at us. No excuses. That's frustrating."
Williams ran seven times and gained 42 yards in the final period.
caught Simms' pass in the left flat and ran eight yards to convert a
third-and-six from the Atlanta 17.
Even with the two-minute warning at their disposal, the Buccaneers had no tricks in mind as they broke the ensuing huddle. They would send Williams over left tackle. The 9-yard touchdown run, which sucked so much energy out of the Georgia Dome, hammered home a reminder that the Falcons should count their blessings.
Two weeks earlier, the Miami Dolphins faced similar circumstances. They had Williams' former backfield mate at Auburn, Ronnie Brown, and prodigal son Ricky Williams gashing the Falcons and tearing holes in Atlanta's run defense when Miami coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan decided to call a fancy play from the 8-yard line.
The result was Keion Carpenter's first interception since 2003, and
Falcons escaped Dolphins Stadium with a 17-10 victory. It's unlikely that Atlanta could've stopped Brown or Ricky Williams after failing to do so most of the afternoon.
Blame quarterback Michael Vick all you want for coughing up the football on the next series and giving the Bucs their chance to win the game on a field goal, but the run defense seemed covered in cobwebs as Cadillac ran untouched to the end zone.
"On that last drive, they kind of pounded us," Brooking said. "It was
like three and four yards. They did that to us at the end. That was very frustrating for me. If you look at our games, a lot of teams haven't done that to us. It's been big plays."
And thus do the Falcons arrive at a critical juncture of their season.
ALLEN PARK - The bunker mentality is in force this week with the Detroit Lions.
Coach Steve Mariucci battened down the hatches Tuesday, barring reporters from practice, clamming up on lineup details and warning players to be guarded in what they reveal about preparations for the Thanksgiving Day game against Atlanta.
At the heart of Mariucci's focus on secrecy is the Lions' quarterback situation. He obviously doesn't want Falcons coach Jim Mora -- Mariucci's defensive coordinator during his last five seasons at San Francisco -- to know whether Jeff Garcia or Joey Harrington is getting the most work in practice. But it isn't the only issue.
"That's just one of the reasons," Mariucci said. "I don't want anybody to know what we're doing with Dre' Bly, if anything. And all the guys that were hurt. Who do we play at safety, at linebacker, at receiver, at quarterback, at corner? You name it."
Bly has missed the last four games with a wrist injury but it is believed he will play with his entire right hand and forearm in a cast.
Middle linebacker Earl Holmes and strong-side linebacker Boss Bailey missed the game in Dallas on Sunday with injuries but it is believed Bailey has a good chance of playing against Atlanta.
All six wide receivers on the roster are healthy but Mariucci hasn't said which of the five will be active and which one will be inactive. In Dallas, it was rookie Mike Williams who did not play.
If Bly plays, the defensive secondary probably will be complete. Andre Goodman, who took over after Fernando Bryant went on injured reserve, is expected to start at the other corner; Terrence Holt is likely to be back at free safety and Kenoy Kennedy will play at strong safety.
At least, that is the thinking, but Mariucci wants to keep Mora guessing as long as possible -- probably up until the final hour before the Thanksgiving Day game at Ford Field.
The quarterback position clearly is the major issue. Harrington started the first five, gave up the job to Garcia for two games and has played the last three while Garcia is recovering from soreness in his previously-broken left leg.
The offense won't change much regardless of which quarterback plays, but the approaches of Garcia and Harrington differ significantly.
"If there is a different type of plan on defense for one quarterback or the other, there's only one day and a half to implement the plan," Mariucci said, referring to Atlanta's defensive preparations. "And if you're going to play for both, then there's really not much time, is there?"
SERIES HISTORY: 31st regular season meeting between the Lions and Atlanta. The Lions have dominated the series, 22-8, including last year's 17-10 win. The Falcons came into that game with a 4-1 record.