Although the Atlanta Falcons' final game of 2013 is all about one individual, there will be plenty of other aspects of the game worth monitoring.
Here is what to watch for as the Falcons attempt to spoil the Carolina Panthers’ chances of winning the NFC South title:
Tony, Tony, Tony: As Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez exited practice Friday afternoon, he told the person chatting on the phone with him that he just finished his final NFL practice. Then Gonzalez assured the caller he wouldn’t renege on that statement. Yes, Gonzalez’s illustrious 17-year career will come to a close Sunday. And there is sure to be plenty of hype surrounding his final Georgia Dome appearance. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gonzalez tear up a bit based on the magnitude of the moment and the likely reception he’ll receive throughout Sunday’s game. Gonzalez has 40 people coming to town for the festivities. "It’s going to be a little emotional,’’ Gonzalez said. He deserves a hero’s sendoff.
Baby steps: Ryan Schraeder drew rave review from the coaching staff for his strong performance against Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith and the San Francisco 49ers’ pass rush. Now the rookie right tackle has to build off that momentum and put together another solid outing against another one of the best defensive fronts in football. "It’s a real tough machup for him this week against Carolina,’’ offensive line coach Pat Hill said of Schraeder. The Falcons actually did a solid job against Carolina’s defensive line in Week 9, holding the Panthers to one sack. Schraeder is likely to square off against left defensive end Charles Johnson, who has nine sacks.
Chip off the block: Speaking of Carolina’s pass rush, right defensive end Greg Hardy actually leads the team with 11 sacks, meaning the Panthers have a lethal pair along with other players capable of getting to Falcons QB Matt Ryan. Against the 49ers, the Falcons seemed to do an inordinate amount of chipping, using running backs and tight ends to get chip blocks on the pass-rushers. Will offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter do the same Sunday? "You’ve probably seen more of it than you think, you just probably didn’t notice it,’’ Koetter said of how he’s utilized chipping this season. "Chipping on great pass-rushers, that’s a mainstay in the NFL these days. … It did jump out in the last game because between Drew Davis, Tony [Gonzalez], Steven Jackson, Jacquizz [Rodgers], and Jason [Snelling], there were multiple good shots. It definitely helped in our protection.’’
Free for all: Sunday could be the last game in a Falcons uniform for players such as defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry, both of whom are set to become unrestricted free agents. Babineaux has proven his worth all season, leaving the Falcons to decide whether they want invest in a 32-year-old defensive lineman. Jerry should get more opportunities inside after Corey Peters’ season ended prematurely due to an Achilles’ injury. Some veteran players under contract beyond this season might have to make a lasting impression on Sunday, too, or else their Falcons futures could be in doubt.