NFC South: Georgia Dome

TAMPA, Fla. -- Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano doesn’t usually flash his sense of humor to the media, but that changed a bit Friday.

Schiano
Talking about the challenge of playing in a noisy Georgia Dome, Schiano fired off a one liner.

“If it’s any louder than it is today it will be an OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] restriction and they’ll probably have to call the game,’’ Schiano said.

Going into the Georgia Dome is always a challenge, but it might be even more significant for the Bucs because this will be the first road start for rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.

“I don’t think many people are comfortable in the Georgia Dome with the noise and all those things,’’ Schiano said. “Our confidence always comes from preparation and I think we’ve had a good week of preparation. It’s not done yet. I think our guys have practiced well and they should be confident in that.’’

In injury news, wide receiver Mike Williams (hamstring) and guard Davin Joseph (knee) both took part in practice. Williams said he fully expects to play Sunday. Schiano said running back/return man Jeff Demps, who had groin surgery earlier this week, should be able to return later this season.

The Bucs also worked out several free-agent wide receivers, including former New York Giants player Ramses Barden. Schiano said the team just was doing due diligence on some prospects.

Double Coverage: Rams-Falcons

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
12:00
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Ryan-Long Getty ImagesThe question for the Falcons in Week 2 will be how quarterback Matt Ryan matches up with the punishing Rams pass rush, led by defensive end Chris Long.

Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White drew a lot of attention in the offseason when he compared the Falcons’ offense to “The Greatest Show on Turf."

That was the nickname for the St. Louis Rams in their heyday. Ironically, the Falcons host the modern-day Rams on Sunday. The Falcons didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in a season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, while the Rams won their opener against Arizona.

ESPN’s Nick Wagoner and Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup between St. Louis and Atlanta.

Yasinskas: I still believe the hype about the Atlanta offense, even after the disappointing showing against New Orleans. I think the Falcons simply hit the wrong team at the wrong place and time. The Saints were motivated by a rowdy crowd that was celebrating coach Sean Payton’s return after a season-long suspension. I think we’ll see more of what the Falcons are about when they play in the Georgia Dome. Still, I think the offensive line remains a major concern and could limit quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to get the ball to his playmakers. Nick, the Rams did a nice job of getting pressure against Arizona. How good is this pass rush?

Wagoner: Everything the Rams do on defense is based on the idea of having a strong pass rush. The defensive line, in particular, is the team's greatest strength. It's not just starting ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, either. The Rams have signed three key backups to contract extensions since March and have a group of eight under control through the end of 2014. Long is the mainstay but Quinn has the upside to become one of the two or three best pass rushers in the league. His three sacks and two forced fumbles last week were a big reason for the Rams' season-opening victory. You mentioned concerns about the offensive line. It looked like that group struggled against New Orleans. Exactly how much of a concern is that for Atlanta right now and what are that unit's weakest spots?

Yasinskas: The offensive line is a huge concern. The Falcons released right tackle Tyson Clabo in the offseason and center Todd McClure retired. The Falcons thought they were covered because they easily could move Peter Konz from guard to center and they thought Mike Johnson was ready to be the starting right tackle. Konz will be just fine at center. But Johnson suffered a season-ending injury early in camp and the Falcons have had to turn to second-year pro Lamar Holmes. He's starting next to guard Garrett Reynolds and that leaves the right side of the line as a big question mark. The left side of the line isn't exactly top shelf either, so this line could be the weak spot for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Speaking of weak spots, what's the biggest one for the Rams?

Wagoner: After Week 1 there are multiple options, including persistent penalty problems, inability to convert turnovers into touchdowns and an underwhelming run game. The most glaring issue coming out of that game, though, was the Rams' struggles in pass coverage. The Rams sat in soft zones for most of the game and Arizona's Carson Palmer carved them up for 327 passing yards. Veteran Cortland Finnegan had probably his worst game as a Ram, giving up six completions for 96 yards and a touchdown and committing a pair of unnecessary roughness penalties. Janoris Jenkins was pretty good on his side but it seems the Rams don't trust he and Trumaine Johnson (who is the third corner) to come up and press consistently just yet. The soft coverage had a sort of nullifying effect on the team's strong pass rush at times because it allowed Palmer to get the ball out quickly. Switching gears a bit, there's an obvious major storyline in this one involving Atlanta running back Steven Jackson. After nine years in St. Louis, how is Jackson adjusting to his new digs?

Yasinskas: Jackson had one big run in the opener, and I think the Falcons really are only beginning to figure out how to properly use him. He's a huge upgrade over Michael Turner, who got old in front of our eyes last season, and that left the Falcons without even the threat of a running game. Jackson changes that. The Falcons still are a pass-first team, but they want to include a healthy mix of Jackson as both a runner and receiver because that should only open the way for big things from White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. How are the Rams adapting to life without Jackson?

Wagoner: The Rams maintained throughout the offseason that they wanted to go with the en vogue running back by committee approach. Then Daryl Richardson clearly won the starting job, Isaiah Pead struggled and was suspended Week 1, and rookie Zac Stacy battled some injury issues in camp. Richardson got a bigger workload than expected against the Cardinals, and the Rams seem comfortable giving him the ball 20-plus times. There wasn't much room to run against the Cardinals, and the Rams know they need to improve there moving forward. Pead returns this week and the Rams want to see more of Stacy. Clearly, the jury is still out in regards to the running game. While we're on the topic of young position groups, it looked like the Falcons' young corners did pretty well without Asante Samuel against New Orleans. What did you see from that group last week and are you expecting Samuel to be ready to go this week?

Yasinskas: I think Samuel will return this week. But the Falcons are very high on rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. They're going to be targets because they're rookies, but they did all right in the opener against a very talented New Orleans passing offense. The thing that really has sped up the development of Trufant and Alford is that they got to work against White and Jones every day in training camp. The results weren't always pretty, but it made them both better players. They still might have some of the usual ups and downs for rookies, but they're only going to continue to get better. It’s time for our predictions.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the last hurdles for the Atlanta Falcons' proposed new stadium is deciding on an exact site.

It’s down to two locations, both near the Georgia Dome. The Falcons have said all along that the South site is the one they prefer. But team owner Arthur Blank said Thursday night that the Falcons also would be fine if the stadium is built on the North side.

“It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle because there are a lot of moving parts,’’ Blank said. “It’s a large project and it’s very complex. The Georgia Congress Center has been a great partner for us and they have two sites on their campus and they both work for us. We’re just as happy with South versus North or the North versus the South.’’

There are two churches currently in existence on the South site and their futures haven’t been determined.

“The issue with the South is these two churches,’’ Blank said. “It’s their decision. If the churches decide that it’s in their best interest to sell their churches and move elsewhere or consolidate with other churches, great. If not in their best interest, they shouldn’t do it and I would encourage them to not do it. It’s really their call. I’d be just as happy on either site.’’

Blank said the Falcons haven’t done as much homework on the North site, but are in the process of catching up. Blank said both sites are well positioned in regards to the city’s mass transit system.

“The South site was the preferred site, primarily because of the two MARTA sites being right there,’’ Blank said. “But the North site has three MARTA stops within .7 miles and it’s very accessible. From a stadium positioning stand point, it’s more optimal. We’ll continue to work hard on both.’’
I’ve been a regular visitor to the Georgia Dome since I started covering the NFL in the mid-1990s. I’ve always thought it was a good stadium.

But when you see and hear the plans the Falcons have for their proposed retractable-roof stadium, it makes you realize that the Georgia Dome might be antiquated by NFL standards. According to the information that’s coming out about what the Falcons have planned for their new stadium, it could be on a par with, or better than, Cowboys Stadium, which is the most spectacular NFL stadium I’ve been in.

I’d expect nothing less from owner Arthur Blank and team president Rich McKay. They think big, and they’ve been thinking about this project for several years.

Part of the plans include seats that vibrate when there’s a big play, and a 100-yard bar. The Falcons are hoping to have the stadium built and ready to open in time for the 2017 season.

NFC South afternoon update

May, 2, 2013
5/02/13
4:22
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Time for an afternoon run through some news and notes from around the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs did more than make the official announcement that Warren Sapp will be the next inductee into the team’s Ring of Honor. The Bucs also announced that Sapp’s number (99) will be retired. The late Lee Roy Selmon is the only other Tampa Bay player to have his number retired. Sapp will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August and the Ring of Honor ceremony will take place Nov. 11 when the Bucs host Miami.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Charlie Campbell calls linebacker Chase Thomas the best signing of an undrafted free agent in the entire league. Thomas has some pass-rush skills and could have a chance to compete with Martez Wilson and Junior Galette.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

In an interview with Charlotte’s WFNZ, general manager Dave Gettleman wouldn’t go much further than to say running back DeAngelo Williams is on the roster "right now." Go ahead and start the speculation (again) that Williams could be traded or released. The Panthers have way too much money invested in their running backs and unloading Williams could free up a lot of cap space now and in the future.

ATLANTA FALCONS

In this radio interview, cornerback Asante Samuel said he would respect Tim Tebow if he walked into Atlanta’s locker room. Don’t worry, that’s not going to happen. The Falcons aren’t looking to put in a gimmick package in their offense because there’s no way they want to take the ball out of Matt Ryan’s hands.

Samuel might not be the only Atlanta player with that last name. Former Georgia player Richard Samuel reportedly will get a tryout during this week’s rookie camp. The younger Samuel bounced between running back and linebacker in college and his best bet to earn an NFL roster spot might be as a special-teams player.

Chris Polian, who spent last season in Atlanta's scouting department, has left to become pro personnel director in Jacksonville. Polian is joining Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell, who previously worked for the Falcons.

The team announced it will hold combined practices with the Cincinnati Bengals on Aug. 5 and 6. The two teams will play an exhibition game at the Georgia Dome on Aug. 8.
NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: After coming up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons will enter the 2013 season as a media darling. They’ll have five nationally televised games, including Sunday night games with the Patriots (Week 4) and at Green Bay (Week 14), Monday night games with the New York Jets (Week 5) and at San Francisco (Week 16), and a Thursday night game with New Orleans (Week 12). The Falcons will be under the microscope from the start, and that’s partly because they’ll open their season against the rival Saints in New Orleans in a game that will mark the official return of coach Sean Payton from a suspension. The Falcons are generally known as a dome team, and that’s a good thing. They will play 11 games indoors but could run into weather issues in late-season road games at Green Bay and San Francisco.

Complaint department: Team president Rich McKay chairs the NFL’s competition committee, but he apparently doesn’t have much influence with the schedule-makers. This will mark the fourth straight year the Falcons have opened their season on the road. The Falcons also have another quirk in their schedule. They play only one NFC South opponent after Thanksgiving, and that’s Carolina at the Georgia Dome in the regular-season finale.

Going international: The Falcons will make franchise history Dec. 1 when they play the Buffalo Bills at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. The Falcons have made preseason appearances in Tokyo, but this will be the first time they’ve played outside the United States during the regular season.

Welcome to the NFL: The Cardinals and Bills both have first-time NFL head coaches. In his five seasons in Atlanta, Mike Smith is 11-0 against first-time head coaches.

Falcons Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, at Miami, 4:05 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 29, New England, 8:30 p.m.
Week 5: Monday, Oct. 7, N.Y. Jets, 8:30 p.m.
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 27, at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, Seattle, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 21, New Orleans, 8:25 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, at Buffalo, 4:05 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, at Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, Washington, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 23, at San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, Carolina, 1 p.m.

After coming within 10 yards of the Super Bowl and having an active offseason, the Atlanta Falcons already figured to be in the spotlight as next season opens.

As it turns out, they’ll be on the national stage even before that. The Falcons will kick off their preseason at the Georgia Dome at 8 p.m. against Cincinnati in a nationally televised game (ESPN). In Week 2 of the preseason, they’ll travel to Baltimore to play the defending Super Bowl champions. The exact date and time for that hasn’t been set yet, but it will be between Aug. 15 and 19.

In Week 3 (Aug. 22-26), Atlanta will travel to Tennessee. The final preseason game will be at home against Jacksonville on Aug. 29, but the exact time for that has yet to be determined.

Around the NFC South

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
9:21
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Time for a morning look at the top headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Tim Tucker points out that teams with stadiums with retractable roofs have played 66 percent of their games with the roofs closed. But Falcons president Rich McKay said the team would keep the roof open as much as possible if it gets a new stadium. Weather is unpredictable, but I can remember several days last season when I walked into the Georgia Dome thinking it was a perfect day to be watching a game outdoors.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Wide receiver Steve Smith said the Panthers should take Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in the first round of the draft. I’m with Smith on this one. It looks like Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be gone before the Panthers get on the clock. But Richardson is in the same class as Floyd and the Panthers need to take him to solidify their defensive line.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

While restructuring contracts is getting the Saints close to the 2013 salary cap, Larry Holder points out the Saints are adding to their cap commitment for future years. That’s the downside of restructures. The Saints are getting themselves out of cap trouble this year, but they’re going to have to do it again next year.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Greg Schiano sounds like he’s more comfortable with his coaching staff heading into his second year. That’s logical because Schiano had to throw together a staff last year after most staffs around the league already were filled and he didn’t always land his first choices. But, this year, Schiano has brought in guys like special teams coach Dave Wannstedt and quarterbacks coach John McNulty, that he has worked with in the past.

In the end, the same old Falcons

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
9:08
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Matt RyanAP Photo/David GoldmanMatt Ryan and the Falcons squandered an early lead and were held scoreless in the second half.
ATLANTA – There was Arthur Blank hugging Mike Smith and offering condolences. There was Smith hugging Thomas Dimitroff and not saying much of anything. There were grown men, namely Tony Gonzalez and Todd McClure, breaking into tears.

Even Roddy White, usually the most vocal member of the Atlanta Falcons, was on the verge of being speechless.

This is what happens when a team known for its inability to win the big games loses its biggest one yet.

This was the scene after the Falcons lost the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers, 28-24, at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.

"We played well," Blank, the owner of the Falcons, said to a group of family members and friends as he waited to hear Smith, the coach, address the media. "Almost …"

Blank’s voice trailed off to silence, and the normally eloquent man became enveloped by a forlorn expression. After Smith talked to the media, he and Blank exchanged a hug, and then Smith did the same with Dimitroff, the general manager.

But the real tears came in the locker room. That’s where Gonzalez and McClure, the two elder statesmen of the team, lost it.

"You play your whole career …" said McClure, the center, who then broke into tears and went silent for about 20 seconds.

"You play your whole career," McClure eventually continued. "To get in this situation, and to come up short is tough."

On the other side of the locker room, Gonzalez, the veteran tight end, was saying basically the same thing and also shedding tears. Some of Gonzalez’s tears might have been because he said he is pretty sure he’s going to retire after a 16-year career. But there also is little doubt he was crying due to the way the Falcons lost the game.

As Gonzalez said he would probably retire, McClure said he wants to play another season. But, after what happened Sunday, I’m getting the feeling Gonzalez and McClure could play another 10 or 20 years and the Falcons still wouldn’t be capable of getting to the Super Bowl -- unless there are some dramatic changes.

The three previous playoff losses during the era of Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan were bad, but this one was horrible.

This one showed, just when it looked like the Falcons were going to turn the corner and show the world they really aren’t postseason chokers, that's precisely who they are.

I didn’t hear a single coach or player try to sugarcoat this one, and that’s fitting because there truly was no excuse for this.

The Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and employees at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport were probably already stocking up on eggs to greet the team upon its arrival for Super Bowl XLVII.

Instead, the Falcons promptly laid a huge egg. They let the 49ers creep back into the game before halftime. Then, they completely folded in the second half. There were two turnovers, two costly personal fouls and even Ryan, the supposed master of the comeback, couldn’t pull off a late miracle and put the Falcons in the end zone, even though they were just 10 yards away with a little more than a minute left.

"It’s tough when you are [10] yards away from the Super Bowl," White said in perhaps his only useable quote of the day.

There were plenty of unusable quotes in a locker room in which profanities, spawned by frustration, were abundant.

The Falcons should be furious about this one. It was their best chance yet to get to the franchise's first Super Bowl since the 1998 season.

Instead, they squandered a 13-3 season and the benefit of a No. 1 seed for the second time in three seasons.

For all the good the Falcons did this season (and they did at least get a playoff win against Seattle last week), they’re right back where they were at the start of the season. And the start of the season before that.

Go ahead and fire away with the same old questions and criticisms.

Smith is too nice to win the big ones. Ryan can win in the regular season, but not when it matters most.

It’s all valid. In fact, now the Falcons have firmly earned the right to be questioned and criticized from now until the day they win a Super Bowl -- if they ever do.

Put the blame on the coaches, and put the blame on Ryan. The Falcons scored 24 points in the first half and precisely zero in the second half. Ryan fumbled away a snap out of the shotgun formation and threw an interception. A team that prides itself on not making mistakes made plenty of them. There were the two personal fouls and repeated breakdowns on defense.

Let’s not forget what might have been the biggest issue of all.

"Covering the tight end," Smith said. "The tight end was an issue."

The tight end (Vernon Davis, who finished with five catches for 106 yards) was a huge issue, mainly because the Falcons inexplicably didn’t bother to cover him.

But let's forget the individual breakdowns for now. It’s time to start wondering if there’s a more systemic issue with the Falcons. Is there some inherent flaw with this personnel, with this coaching staff and with the way the Falcons do things?

They had everything: a ton of talent, an incredibly loud home crowd and a big early lead.

Yet the Falcons have squandered yet another postseason opportunity. After all the talk about how -- this time -- this team was really, truly different, it turns out the Falcons are nothing but the same old Falcons.

 

Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 28-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: For the second time in three seasons, the Falcons went 13-3 and earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC but couldn’t parlay home-field advantage into a trip to the Super Bowl. At least the Falcons won a playoff game (they defeated Seattle in the divisional round) for the first time in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era. But this team had visions of much more than one playoff win, so the ending is disappointing. Smith is not on any hot seat because of his huge regular-season success, but he and the Falcons will enter the 2013 season under enormous pressure to win it all. This team is loaded with talent, and fans and owner Arthur Blank are running out of patience.

Opportunity lost: This one is going to be particularly painful for the Falcons. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead and looked like they were going to blow the 49ers out of the Georgia Dome. But just like last week against Seattle, the Falcons let the 49ers get back in the game. The Falcons had a chance to win it in the end. But there were no miracles from Ryan this time, as he had a fourth-down pass batted down deep in San Francisco territory with less than two minutes remaining.

Opportunity lost II: Atlanta receiver Julio Jones played the game of his life. He caught eight passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. But the loss put a big damper on all that.

What’s next: The Falcons will head into an offseason that will involve some key personnel decisions. Cornerback Brent Grimes, left tackle Sam Baker and William Moore highlight the class of potential free agents. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has hinted strongly at retirement, and aging running back Michael Turner could become a salary-cap casualty. This team still has a good nucleus in place, but the loss showed that flaws remain. Smith and Thomas Dimitroff will have to spend the offseason tweaking the roster to try to get the Falcons ready to take the next step.

Halftime: Falcons 24, 49ers 14

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
4:31
PM ET
ATLANTA -- Sunday’s NFC Championship Game is shaping up a lot like last week’s divisional round game between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

At halftime, the Falcons hold a 24-14 lead.

That may seem like good news for Atlanta fans. But here’s the catch -- the Falcons were leading this game 17-0 and looked like they were ready to blow the 49ers right out of the Georgia Dome.

But it’s become eerily reminiscent of last week when the Falcons led 20-0, squandered it and had to kick a last-second field goal to get past Seattle. But the good news for the Falcons is that they took the momentum back with a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez near the end of the first half.

We’ll see what the second half brings. I’ll be back with a Rapid Reaction as soon as the game ends. Also, if you’re not already with us, please join us in the Countdown Live chat in the second half.

Live from the Georgia Dome

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
12:03
PM ET
ATLANTA -- I’m in the Georgia Dome, where things are quiet for the moment.

The gates aren’t open to fans yet and the only players I see on the field loosening up are Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant and punter Matt Bosher.

But the atmosphere is going to change soon enough because the parking lots already were jammed with tailgate parties and I did notice a few fans wearing San Francisco jerseys.

I’ll be back with inactives about 90 minutes before kickoff. Colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando are here with me and Ashley Fox also should be arriving soon. Also, I'm scheduled to chat about the matchup between the Falcons and 49ers on ESPN Radio at approximately 12:30 p.m. ET.

Be sure to join us in the Countdown Live chat throughout the game.

Championship Sunday is upon us

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
9:06
AM ET
ATLANTA -- At long last, the day of the NFC Championship Game is finally here.

It’s a gorgeous day in Atlanta with the sun shining, not a cloud in the sky and afternoon temperatures expected to be in the upper 50s. That might seem insignificant because the game between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers will be played indoors in the Georgia Dome. But it could be a factor because it means the tailgating conditions are perfect and that could only make the crowd noise in the dome louder.

I’m passing the next few hours at my hotel, but colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando will be heading over to the Georgia Dome in a few hours. We should be in there about noon and we’ll bring you all the pregame news and notes.

We’ll also be chatting live throughout the game on Countdown Live, so join us if you can.

Buckle up because it should be a fun day.

Quick hits on the Atlanta Falcons

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
12:43
PM ET
The Atlanta Falcons, whose fans spent the season saying they don’t get enough media attention, are getting a ton of attention with the NFC Championship Game approaching. It’s coming out fast and furious, so let’s run through some of the highlights:
  • We usually stick with the nuts and bolts of football here. But, sometimes, there’s something outside the box that’s worth a look. That’s true in this video salute to the Falcons by The Georgia Aquarium.
  • The sports merchandise retail website Fanatics.com reports that sales of Falcons’ merchandise are up 120 percent this week. The website also says that Matt Ryan and Julio Jones jerseys have been among the week’s top-five sellers.
  • Jay Adams writes that kicker Matt Bryant’s success is a product of his pregame preparation. He’s always the first member of the Falcons out on the field before the game. I even once saw Bryant walking through a parking garage near the Georgia Dome about three hours before kickoff, wearing headphones. I thought about saying hello, but Bryant already looked as intense as he does before attempting a game-winning field goal.
  • Warrick Dunn, Tommy Nobis, Steve Bartkowski, Jeff Van Note and Jessie Tuggle will serve as honorary captains for the Falcons on Sunday.
  • Daniel Cox writes that Harry Douglas is a critical piece of the Atlanta receiving corps. That’s a good point. Roddy White and Jones get a lot of attention because they’re spectacular. But Douglas has some talent, too. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up playing a big role Sunday. San Francisco has to be concerned about White and Jones and that might leave Douglas with some favorable matchups.
  • Jen Floyd Engel writes that tight end Tony Gonzalez already has secured his legacy, even though he doesn’t have a Super Bowl championship. Gonzalez is the best tight end in history. But it sure would be a nice topper to his resume to get a Super Bowl ring.
  • Although a lot of people are saying the running ability of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick creates a mismatch, Pete Prisco writes that the Falcons have the tools to slow him down. They may have those tools, but they’re going to have to use them perfectly all game long. Kaepernick is so explosive that one mistake could prove very costly.
  • You might not have caught it, so here’s the link to our special page on the NFC Championship Game.
Michael TurnerJosh D. Weiss/USA TODAY SportsThe Atlanta Falcons need aging runing back Michael Turner now more than ever.

The Atlanta Falcons need Michael Turner, for now.

Maybe it’s for no longer than two more games, but the Falcons need Turner to be the running back he was Sunday against Seattle and the player he was the previous four seasons.

If they’re going to have any chance at defeating the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons need Turner to at least give them some semblance of a running game.

Turner doesn’t have to be the stud he was in 2008, when he ran for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns, because the Falcons have made the transition and become a pass-first team with Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones playing the lead roles. But against a San Francisco defense that’s as talented as any the Falcons have faced, Turner has to be more than the bit player he was during the regular season.

But as corny as it may sound, maybe the plan all along was to go lightly with a 30-year-old running back during the regular season and then spring him loose in the postseason. Atlanta coach Mike Smith is as straight a shooter as anyone in the league, and I remember him telling me as far back as the NFL owners meetings in March that he wanted to limit Turner’s carries. Smith repeated that all through the preseason.

“That’s something we talked about for several years," Turner said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Coach Smith told me several times that he wanted to cut down my number of carries. But it just never happened because the situation wasn’t right. Then, this year, it came true."

Turner carried only 222 times for 800 yards. He remained the starter, but split time with second-year pro Jacquizz Rodgers, and the split was as down the middle as you’ll ever see. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Turner was on the field for 503 snaps and Rodgers took part in 502 snaps.

When Turner was on the field, he didn’t look much like the player who was the focal point of the offense the previous four seasons. He often looked slow and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, down almost a full yard from 2011. The 3.6-yard average ranked 39th among NFL running backs with significant carries. Turner had only two 100-yard rushing games (103 against Carolina and 102 against Dallas).

Throughout the season, Turner played the role of company man and said he was fine with a reduced role. But Turner now admits he wasn’t always happy.

“I kept my feelings to myself, but yeah, it was hard on me," Turner said. “It was rough. There were games when I was getting like 10 to 14 carries and I wasn’t happy about that. I was always used to getting into a rhythm as the game went on and, all of the sudden, I wasn’t getting the chance to really get into the rhythm. I’d say it probably took me the whole first half of the season to really get used to my new role.’’

Turner still had 10 rushing touchdowns, one receiving touchdown and handled most short-yardage situations. As the season went on, the Falcons seemed to work Rodgers into the lineup more and more.

The Falcons were winning and that helped Turner accept his reduced role.

“With Jacquizz and Jason Snelling [another backup running back], it all worked and we were able to finally do it the way Coach Smith had always talked about," Turner said. "The formula worked and we were winning. You don’t argue with winning."

And maybe you don’t argue with Smith. All season, whenever the coach was asked about Turner looking ineffective or not getting a lot of carries, Smith kept saying the time would come when the Falcons would need a big game from their running back.

That day came in the divisional round against the Seahawks. On a day when the Seattle defense was keying on Atlanta’s passing game, Turner looked young again. He carried 14 times for 98 yards. The flip side was that the threat of the running game allowed Ryan to complete eight of 12 play-action passes for 87 yards and three touchdowns.

Turner gave the offense balance, and that’s something the Falcons can use against a San Francisco defense that’s filled with six Pro Bowlers.

“It’s the best front seven we’ve faced all year, probably the best defense we’ve faced all year," Turner said.

The other thing Smith repeatedly said when discussing Turner was that the whole point of limiting his carries was to keep the 30-year-old running back fresh and healthy for the postseason.

“That part worked," Turner said. “I had like 100 less carries than I’m used to. You take away all those hits and you’re going to feel good."

But the reality is that Turner is going to turn 31 in less than a month and he’s carrying a $5.5 million salary-cap figure for 2013. Rodgers has continued to show signs he can take on a bigger role.

All that has led to speculation that the Falcons could add another back in the draft or free agency to pair with Rodgers and let Turner go.

“I feel like I still can go a few more years," Turner said. “People tend to forget that I didn’t play a lot my first four years [in San Diego]. I don’t think my body is wearing down."

The Falcons can sit down and ponder Turner’s future in the offseason. But that can wait.

For now, the Falcons are just hoping a rested Turner can give them two more big games.

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