The second half of the schedule doesn’t get any easier for the 2-6 Atlanta Falcons.
They’ll face three teams that have a combined 20-5 record with matchups against Seattle (8-1), New Orleans (6-2), and San Francisco (6-2).
First up is the Seahawks, whom the Falcons beat 30-28 in last season’s NFC divisional playoffs. Both teams are much different than they were a year ago due to personnel changes and injuries.
Here's what to watch for Sunday at the Georgia Dome:
Keep on swinging: Some figured Lamar Holmes was down for the count after losing his starting right tackle spot to Jeremy Trueblood. But Holmes, who started at left tackle for an injured Sam Baker for three games, is back starting on the right side and steadily improving, according to offensive line coach Pat Hill. Holmes told ESPN.com he wasn’t in shape at the start of the season, but he has worked diligently to correct the problem. "After the week I made the comment, I talked to the strength coach and just started doing things differently,’’ Holmes said. "I started working harder in practice and started eating more of the right things. Slowly, it just turned around where I’m not as tired as I was at the beginning of the season. I feel like I can go all four quarters.’’ Holmes’ pass protection will be tested Sunday against Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons, the player Holmes sat in the film room and studied following Thursday’s practice. Clemons rushes from both sides. "He’s been in the league for 10 years for a reason,’’ Holmes said. "He’s not a pushover. He’s really good. He’s got a great get off and he uses his hands really well. It’s going to be a tough little battle. But we’ve got to go in there and fight for the 12 rounds. I’m pretty sure he’ll be up to the task, just as well as I will.’’
Problem solver: Matt Ryan has thrown seven interceptions in the past two games after throwing just three interceptions through the first six contests. Now he’ll face a Seattle team tied for first in the NFL with 13 interceptions, led by four apiece from cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas. Ryan admitted forcing some throws while working without Julio Jones and Roddy White. Well, the expected return of White following a three-game hiatus should help Ryan rediscover his comfort zone. That’s not to say life will be easy for White, particularly when he matches up against the lanky and physical Sherman. But at least White has the ability to make some of the tough catches that maybe some of his teammates can’t. It will be just a matter of how freely White is able to move around coming off hamstring and ankle injuries.
Beast mode: The Falcons did a solid job containing Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch in the playoff game as Lynch managed just 46 yards on 16 carries. But when Lynch goes into "Beast Mode,’’ there is no stopping him. He enters Sunday’s game as the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher, with four runs of 20-plus yards and six touchdowns. It seems like one explosive or tough run gets him going. And the Falcons have allowed explosive runs to Arizona’s Andre Ellington (80-yard touchdown) and Miami’s Lamar Miller (49 yards). For the Falcons, gang tackling will be a must.
Taunting Tate: It would be shocking if Seattle’s Golden Tate ever pulled a taunting stunt again like he did against the St. Louis Rams, when he caught the ball and waved good-bye to the defender at the 25-yard line on his way to a touchdown. Regardless of what kind of foolishness Tate brings to the field Sunday, the Falcons can’t fall for the bait. They also can’t ignore just how dangerous Tate can be as both a receiver and return man. In terms of the latter, Tate ranks sixth in the league in punt returns with an average of 13.2 yards per return. He set up game-winning scores against Houston and last week against Tampa Bay with returns of 32 yards and 71 yards, respectively.