When this Week 16 game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions first showed up on the 2012 schedule, just about everyone thought it would have major playoff implications. Instead, the Falcons have one of the best records in football and the Lions have been embarrassingly bad.
The Falcons (12-2) take a lot of grief for having the NFL's easiest schedule. Of course, the fans hate that sort of talk and point out that: "You are what your record says you are."
While that isn't necessarily true, every win silences another group of doubters. Ultimately, however, until Matt Ryan brings this team deep into the playoffs, the "haters" will continue to have a leg to stand on.
The Lions (4-10), meanwhile, don't have any legs to stand on (save Jason Hanson's, which may need to be embalmed if he returns for his 22nd season in 2013). The Kittens have gone from one of the NFL's most exciting young teams to Calvin Johnson and a bunch of question marks. Are they wasting his career just like they wasted Barry Sanders'? Or are Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew just experiencing a temporary setback?
Key Storyline No. 1: The Falcons are for Real, Aren't They?
Let's play semantics here for a second. After the Falcons lost to the Panthers, I wrote that they've given skeptics more evidence to make their case. That is still true. However, after their blowout win over the Giants, it's difficult not to write off that Panthers loss as an aberration and start making Super Bowl plans.
Yet, just as that one-week swing brought the Falcons down to the depths and back up again, a loss to the eminently beatable Lions could bring them back down again.
So, even if we're trending toward "believing" in the Falcons right now, the Atlanta faithful might have to go into hiding for another week if their team doesn't take care of business in Motown.
Key Storyline No. 2: Is Jim Schwartz Coaching for his Life?
On the other sideline, the Lions are dealing with a totally different set of challenges.
For his head-coaching career, Jim Schwartz sits at 22-40 and hasn't had a playoff win in four years of coaching. Much of that can be attributed to the prevailing stench of the Matt Millen era, and it's worth mentioning that Schwartz has probably gotten a longer leash because of just how bad the team he inherited truly was.
Yet Millen can't be used to explain away the dip in production from 2011 to 2012. Issues both on and off the field deep-sixed this squad. That's on Schwartz and Mayhew, period.
Records of 4-12 and 6-10 are, effectively, the same thing for a team that's already ensured a fourth-place finish in the division, but that difference could mean the world for a coach trying to keep his job.
Keys for the Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan needs to think low-risk, high-reward if the Falcons want to put this game away early. There's little reason to take chances against a secondary that everyone knows will give up big plays sooner or later.
In addition, tackling has been a huge problem for the Lions since....well, since Bobby Ross. Hitting Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White (if he plays, questionable this week) on short to intermediate routes will neutralize the Lions pass rush and put the Falcons on the fast track to garbage time.
Defensively, the way to stop Calvin Johnson is making sure the ball never gets to him. Of course, that is easier said than done. However, if John Abraham and company can get to Matt Stafford, he's sure to throw some errant passes, and even Johnson can't catch a ball that's headed for the third row of the Ford Field seats.
It's not scheme-related, but the Falcons need to do their best to either a) put the Lions away early, or b) be prepared for a late-game surge. The Lions love doing their "Cardiac Cats" routine and attempting late-game comebacks, but if the Falcons are prepared, they should have more than enough talent to stem that tide before it starts.
Keys for the Detroit Lions
Prayer, perhaps? Hope for a Christmas miracle?
The Lions—on paper, when healthy—have the talent to beat the Atlanta Falcons or any other team. In practice, however, they rarely have the ability or will to get themselves out of the paper bags their fans are hurriedly getting out of storage so no one recognizes them.
On offense, the mandate is clear. Johnson can have the 101st Airborne covering him, and Stafford still needs to throw him the ball. Johnson is tracking down another one of Jerry Rice's records, and the Lions' No. 1-ranked passing offense needs to be a huge part of any success they might have on Saturday night.
Still, the Falcons rushing defense has been subpar this season, so if the Lions can maintain some semblance of balance, it might keep Stafford clean and away from his soon-to-be-patented mental errors.
On defense, the Lions need to hope "bad Matt Ryan" shows up and throws a couple picks. The Lions can aid that transformation if they're able to create some pressure, especially up the middle with Sammie Lee Hill and Ndamukong Suh.
Bold Prediction: Falcons Will Trail at Halftime
The Giants butt-whooping aside, the Falcons haven't had the best starts as of late (see: games against Tampa Bay and Arizona). One of the downsides of an easy schedule is the temptation to play down to the level of the opponents.
I'm (boldly) predicting a slow start for both teams and a Lions lead at halftime that will keep viewers tuned in for the second half and the TV producers happy.
Player of the Game Prediction: Tony Gonzalez
Looking at the Falcons roster, it's fun playing, "Who will the Lions most spectacularly fail to cover?" With Roddy White questionable and dinged up even if he plays, the Lions will get to shift a little extra focus to Julio Jones. Jones should still be able to beat the Lions, repeatedly, like rag dolls.
Yet if Ryan wants to stay clean and off of his backside, he'll get the ball to Gonzalez, who should be wide open on nearly every play.
Still, take your pick. The Falcons should have a great offensive effort, and anyone of their stars could have a phenomenal performance as the lowly Lions lose at home.
Final Score Prediction: Falcons 33, Lions 23
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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