NFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars

Forbes has its annual list of the values of all 32 NFL franchises. The NFC South has two teams that are worth more than $1 billion.

If you’re just going by recent on-field performance, you might be shocked at which two division teams are worth more than $1 billion.

The Carolina Panthers are No. 16 at $1.048 billion, a five-percent increase over last year. The Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 2008, but they do have some pretty good equity built up in a privately-held stadium that opened in 1996.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have been inconsistent and struggled at the box office in recent years, are just two spots behind the Panthers. The Bucs are valued at $1.033 billion, a five-percent increase over last year.

Surprisingly the NFC South teams that have won big in recent years are valued at less than $1 billion.

The New Orleans Saints came in at No. 23 with a $971 million value, a one-percent increase over last year. The Atlanta Falcons came in at No. 28. They’re valued at $837 million, a three-percent increase over last year. If the Falcons do get that new stadium with a retractable roof, I think they’ll easily make the leap over the $1 billion line.

For the record, the Jacksonville Jaguars came in at No. 32 with a $770 million value. The Dallas Cowboys were No. 1 at $2.1 billion.

Observation deck: Falcons-Jaguars

August, 30, 2012

Some quick observations on the Falcons' 24-14 preseason loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night.
  • Coach Mike Smith opened the game with most of his starting defense on the field. He told the defense it would play one series. Well, that series ended up being exactly one play. Defensive tackle Vance Walker scooped up a Blaine Gabbert fumble that set up an Atlanta touchdown on its first offensive play. Smith stayed true to his word. The starting defense, for the most part, was done after that one play. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent and defensive tackle Peria Jerry were the notable exceptions. They got some extended playing time because Dent missed some time earlier in the preseason and needs the experience. Jerry, who appears to be destined to start with Corey Peters injured, continues to show signs he could get back to where he was before he suffered a major knee injury in his rookie season.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Dominique Davis got the start and played the entire way. Davis did some good things, particularly making a few wise choices to dump off to secondary receivers (and sometimes just throwing the ball away) when primary targets weren’t able to get open downfield. But Davis did throw an interception as the Falcons were running the two-minute offense late in the game. I think Davis has shown enough to earn a roster spot, but I think he will open the season as the third quarterback behind starter Matt Ryan and Luke McCown. I think the Falcons will be thrilled if Davis can develop into the backup relatively quickly. But I think the smart move is to at least open the season with the veteran McCown as the backup. He has experience in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense from their days together with the Jaguars. But I’m impressed by just about everything about Davis. In particular his pocket presence and awareness is a whole lot better than you would expect from an undrafted rookie.
  • Dominique Franks did some good things at cornerback. That along with the fact that he’s wrapped up the punt-returner job, probably means Franks has locked up the fourth cornerback spot. Franks intercepted a Chad Henne pass near the end of the first half.
  • Speaking of guys on the roster bubble, I think Kevin Cone might have helped his case for the final receiver spot. Cone had a nice touchdown reception, where he swatted away several potential tacklers, in the third quarter.

Observation deck: Jaguars-Saints

August, 17, 2012
Some quick observations on the New Orleans Saints’ 27-24 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:
  • After looking very good in the first two preseason games, the first-team defense didn’t have a good outing against the Jaguars. It is only the preseason and, ordinarily, you could say the Saints still are getting into Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme. But this one deserves at least a little concern. Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert looked better than he did at any point in his rookie season. Gabbert completed 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards. Plus, it wasn’t like Gabbert had Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield. Instead, Rashad Jennings was the main ball carrier and he had 62 yards on 11 carries in the first half. The Jaguars had 101 rushing yards in the first half.
  • There were a couple of Saints' injuries that didn’t look good. Linebacker Chris Chamberlain appeared to injure his knee and receiver Andy Tanner was carted off with an apparent injury to his left leg. No details on the injuries were available immediately, but losing either player for an extended period could hurt. Tanner, who had a nice training camp and start to the preseason, is competing for a roster spot as the fourth or fifth receiver. Chamberlain, who played for Spagnuolo in St. Louis, has a shot at being a starter or key backup.
  • Drew Brees didn’t get a lot of help from his offensive line early on. Brees was sacked and lost a fumble with 9:00 left in the second quarter. But Brees bounced back and the Saints had a nice drive late in the first half to cut Jacksonville’s lead to 17-10. Brees finished the night completing 10 of 13 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown.
  • Backup quarterback Chase Daniel had a very efficient outing. He completed 16 of 21 passes for 185 yards and two touchdown. Daniel led what should have been the game-winning drive, connecting with running back Travaris Cadet on a 24-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. But Jacksonville rallied for a touchdown with 13 seconds left to keep Daniel and Cadet from being the heroes.
  • Defensive end Junior Galette continued his strong preseason, putting pressure on Gabbert several times. I think Galette could end up starting as Will Smith serves a suspension for the first four games. After that, Galette could be a regular in the rotation because he has some explosiveness as a pass-rusher.
  • Giving 110 percent, as Raheem Morris said he always did, cornerback Elbert Mack tipped a third-quarter pass that turned into an interception for Isa Abdul-Quddus. Mack, who came over from Tampa Bay, has a chance at a roster spot as a backup cornerback and special-teams player.

David Garrard in the NFC South?

February, 28, 2012
I heard a very interesting and lengthy interview with David Garrard while driving a bit earlier Tuesday on Sirius NFL Radio.

Garrard made it very clear he wants to play again next season after sitting out 2011. Garrard said he had back surgery to repair an injury that was holding him back when the Jaguars released him just before the start of last season. He said he’s almost 100 percent and his agent is making teams aware of his availability.

[+] EnlargeDavid Garrard
J. Meric/Getty ImagesQuarterback David Garrard could take on a backup/mentor role on several NFC South teams.
As you might expect, Garrard said his first preference would be to go to a team where he would at least have a chance to compete for a starting job. I don’t see that scenario as even a remote possibility in the NFC South. But Garrard also said he’d be open to being a backup/mentor.

In those roles, I could see him in the NFC South. Let’s throw out the Saints because they’ve got Drew Brees as their starter (assuming they finally get around to getting a new contract done) and they seem content with Chase Daniel as the backup. If the Saints do anything at quarterback this offseason, it might be using a late-round pick on a project-type quarterback to groom behind Brees.

But I can at least see scenarios where Garrard would make sense for the other three NFC South teams. Let’s start with Tampa Bay. The Bucs have Josh Freeman as their starter and view him as their franchise quarterback.

Backup Josh Johnson can become a free agent and I think he probably will test the market. Johnson’s athletic and the previous coaching staff sometimes used him in the wildcat formation (although not with a great deal of success). But Johnson’s not the kind of guy you want to see playing for an extended period if Freeman is injured. Garrard can be that guy because he’s got plenty of experience as a starter.

There’s also a school of thought that the Bucs might want to surround Freeman with an experienced backup that can help act as a mentor. Garrard or David Carr are guys I think could be possibilities if the Bucs go in that direction. New offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan worked as quarterbacks coach with Carr and the New York Giants the last two seasons. Sullivan also worked for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2002 and ’03. Those were Garrard’s first two seasons in the NFL and Sullivan was a defensive assistant the first year, before switching to offense in 2003. But at least he has some familiarity with Garrard.

Speaking of familiarity with Garrard, that could be more of a factor with the other two NFC South teams.

Carolina quarterbacks coach Mike Shula was quarterbacks coach in Jacksonville from 2007 through 2010. Garrard’s best statistical seasons came in that span and all indications are he and Shula got along well. The Panthers are set with Cam Newton as their starter, but backup Derek Anderson is a free agent and Jimmy Clausen’s future with the team remains unclear. Garrard might be an upgrade over Anderson as a mentor and as a player.

Garrard also has ties to the Atlanta coaching staff. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator from 2007 through the end of last season. I’m not real sure if Garrard and Koetter parted on friendly terms, but I think the decision to dump Garrard was made mainly by former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio. If nothing else, Garrard should be pretty familiar with the concepts Koetter will try to add to Atlanta’s offense.

Atlanta veteran backup Chris Redman is scheduled to be a free agent and I don’t think the Falcons are ready to elevate John Parker Wilson to the No. 2 role. I think there will be some interest in bringing back Redman because his price tag won’t be high and he’s a good set of eyes and ears for Matt Ryan. But Redman’s not the kind of guy you want to play if Ryan goes down for an extended period of time.

If the Falcons are going to make a play for Garrard, a lot will depend on what Koetter thinks of the quarterback. Heck, even coach Mike Smith could have a weighty opinion on this one. Smith is familiar with Garrard because he was defensive coordinator in Jacksonville before taking over in Atlanta.

Dirk Koetter likes screen passes

January, 16, 2012
All those Atlanta fans that aren’t thrilled with the hiring of Dirk Koetter as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator might find some good news in the numbers I’m about to reveal.

Unlike previous offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, Koetter likes to use screen passes. That’s pretty obvious from his days as the coordinator in Jacksonville.

In 2011, Jacksonville rookie Blaine Gabbert completed 36 of 45 (80 percent) of his attempts on screen passes for 190 yards, which ranked No. 19 in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Jaguars may have thrown even a few more screens than that. Gabbert started the final 14 games. Luke McCown started the first two games and we can likely assume he attempted at least a few screens. We don’t know for sure because ESPN Stats & Information’s list of numbers on screen passes only goes 36 quarterbacks deep.

Right near the bottom of the list is Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. He attempted only 20 screens while starting all 16 regular-season games. He completed 16 of those attempts for 68 yards -- that yardage total ranked No. 32 among quarterbacks.

Koetter wasn’t simply trying to take pressure off his rookie quarterback. He’s got a history of using the screen. In the 2010 season, former Jacksonville starter David Garrard completed 37 of 42 screen passes (88.1 percent) for 316 yards.

Dirk Koetter joining Falcons

January, 15, 2012
The Jacksonville Jaguars have Atlanta’s old offensive coordinator as their head coach. Now, the Falcons have Jacksonville’s former offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, as their play caller.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Koetter has been hired as Atlanta’s new offensive coordinator and the team just confirmed the move.

Koetter also had interviewed for the coordinator’s job with the University of Alabama, but the Falcons won out.

Koetter has history with Atlanta coach Mike Smith. Koetter joined the Jacksonville staff in 2007, Smith’s last season as the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator. Prior to joining Jacksonville, Koetter had a long history as a college offensive coordinator.

In Atlanta, Koetter’s main job will be to get more out of a talented offense than Mularkey did. Despite having a passing game that featured Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez and a running game that featured Michael Turner, the Falcons were inconsistent on offense during the 2011 regular season. In their playoff loss to the New York Giants, they did not score any offensive points.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have a new coach and the Atlanta Falcons are without an offensive coordinator.

Mike Mularkey reportedly has been hired as Jacksonville’s new coach. Mularkey had been the offensive coordinator since Mike Smith’s arrival in Atlanta in 2008.

The Falcons previously lost defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who left to take a position at Auburn.

We’ll see what Smith does as far as replacing both coordinators soon. But there’s an obvious candidate for the offensive job already on staff. That’s quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski, who was hired just about a year ago.

Bratkowski previously was Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Mularkey was up for several jobs as a head coach last year and a Falcons official said Smith hired Bratkowski so he would have a potential replacement for Mularkey already in place.

Mularkey may attempt to take some Atlanta assistants with him to Jacksonville.
ATLANTA – The Jacksonville Jaguars reportedly have asked the Atlanta Falcons for permission to interview offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey for their head coaching position.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the Falcons have granted that permission, but that’s not likely to be a stumbling block. Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff generally don’t stand in the way of assistants who get a chance to move up. Plus, Smith has a good relationship with the Jaguars. He worked as Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator before taking the Atlanta job in 2008. Mularkey also has a son who works in Jacksonville's personnel department.

Mularkey’s name has been tied to the Jacksonville job since Jack Del Rio was fired. He has previous head coaching experience as a head coach with Buffalo. The Jaguars likely will want a coach who can help rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert develop and Mularkey has largely been credited for the success of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in his first four seasons.

It’s not known when Mularkey will talk to the Jaguars, but the Falcons have a playoff game to get ready for Sunday against the New York Giants.

Mularkey also potentially could be a candidate for the Tampa Bay job, if the Bucs part ways with Raheem Morris. Mularkey started his coaching career with the Bucs in the mid-1990s and his reputation as a quarterback builder could be attractive for a team that’s looking to get Josh Freeman back on track.

Superlatives on Falcons' victory

December, 16, 2011
ATLANTA – Let’s take a look at the statistical highlights from the Falcons' 41-14 victory against Jacksonville on Thursday night.
  • My favorite of the bunch comes from ESPN Stats & Information and puts into perspective just how big a game defensive end John Abraham had. He became only the sixth player since the start of the 2001 season to record at least 3.5 sacks and force at least two fumbles in a single game. All of Abraham’s sacks came on downs when the Falcons only sent four pass rushers. He is the first player in the past two seasons to record more than three sacks via standard pass rushes in a single game.
  • Abraham now has 111 career sacks and moved past Greg Townsend (109.5 sacks) and into 16th place on the NFL’s all-time list.
  • Quarterback Matt Ryan was especially good when throwing inside the numbers. He completed 11 of 12 passes (91.7 percent), for two touchdowns and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt. In the first 13 games, Ryan completed 65.1 percent of his passes between the numbers and averaged 8.5 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
  • Ryan targeted Roddy White on 62 percent of his attempts. That’s the second-highest target percentage for any player since the start of the 2008 season. (The highest was when Denver’s Kyle Orton targeted Brandon Marshall on 68.3 percent of his throws in a 2009 game against the Colts.) All seven passes Ryan threw that traveled at least 15 yards in the air were intended for White.
  • White increased his franchise record for 100-yard receiving games to 27.
  • Ryan threw three touchdowns against Jacksonville after passing for four in the previous game, against Carolina. That marked the first time in his career he has thrown three or more touchdowns in back-to-back games.
  • Ryan’s career record in December improved to 10-3 (.769 winning percentage). Only Tom Brady (.900), Philip Rivers (.857) and Peyton Manning (.833) have better December winning percentages.
  • Atlanta’s 41 points were a season high.
  • The Falcons are now 25-6 at the Georgia Dome since 2008. That’s the best home record for any NFC team in that span.
  • Atlanta’s five sacks tied a season high. The Falcons first had five sacks in the season opener against Chicago.

Falcons hitting stride at right time

December, 16, 2011
Roddy WhiteDale Zanine/US PresswireRoddy White scored twice as he and the Falcons looked like contenders to make a playoff run.

ATLANTA -- Fourteen games into the season, the Atlanta Falcons finally played how they were supposed to play.

They looked like the trendy Super Bowl pick they were back in the preseason. They played with the “explosiveness’’ coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff talked about so much in the offseason. They were explosive on both sides of the ball -- and even on special teams -- and played the closest thing they have all season to a perfect game.

That resulted in a 41-14 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome.

Granted, Jacksonville is not a good team, but we saw the first real signs that Atlanta can be a truly good one.

“That’s what we need,’’ said quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 19 of 26 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns. He also posted a 137.3 NFL passer rating, the second highest of his career. “But I still think we can be a lot better.’’

Maybe so. However, the Falcons were a lot closer to being a strong all-around team than they have been all season, and that's encouraging. At 9-5, the season had been marked by inconsistency and it never really seemed like the Falcons were meeting expectations.

Expectations ticked upward when Roddy White said the Falcons’ offense would be “The Greatest Show on Turf’’ and free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards referred to himself as the “missing link.’’

But White, Edwards and others were missing at times earlier in the season. Recently, though, there had been signs that things were coming together.

What we saw Thursday night went beyond just a few flashes. What we saw was the team Smith and Dimitroff envisioned when they traded up in the draft to get receiver Julio Jones, and went out and signed Edwards to a big contract.

The downfield passing game, which had come on a bit in recent weeks, really clicked. White and Jones each made deep catches. White finished with 10 receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and Jones had five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.

“When you take shots downfield, you’ve got to just keep taking them,’’ Ryan said. “It’s like a shooter in basketball. Even if you’re not making the shots, you keep taking them because they’re going to come.’’

The offensive numbers could have been even more inflated, but Smith began pulling some of his starters late in the third quarter. Heck, the defensive statistics could have been even better, but they were pretty darn good.

Veteran defensive end John Abraham, the guy the Falcons wanted to help when they signed Edwards, had one of the best games of what has been a very impressive career. Abraham pretty much dominated the game.

He sacked rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert 3.5 times and forced two fumbles. Abraham’s first forced fumble came when he sacked Gabbert with 46 seconds left in the first half. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton recovered, and the Falcons kicked a field goal to take a 27-0 halftime lead.

Abraham repeated the feat on Jacksonville’s third play of the third quarter -- only that Gabbert fumble was picked up by defensive tackle Corey Peters, who rumbled 13 yards for a touchdown.

“John Abraham had a monster night,’’ said Smith, who clinched his fourth consecutive winning season for a franchise that never had back-to-back winning seasons before his arrival.

Abraham had plenty of help. He shared a sack with Edwards, who also was credited with a quarterback hurry; reserve defensive end Kroy Biermann added a sack.

The Falcons were able to generate so much pressure on Gabbert with their front four that they seldom bothered to send blitzers. Having extra players in coverage was a big reason Gabbert had only 24 passing yards in the first half, and finished with 141 yards and an interception.

“[Gabbert] holds the ball a lot,’’ Abraham said.

Abraham took the ball out of Gabbert’s grasp, and the defense came awfully close to pitching a shutout. Jacksonville’s first touchdown came on a blocked punt in the third quarter, and its only offensive touchdown came with 59 seconds left, long after many of Atlanta’s defensive starters were out of the game.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's John Abraham
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAtlanta's John Abraham had 3.5 sacks against the Jaguars.
“We played well on all cylinders,’’ Abraham said. “But I wouldn’t consider it a complete game. I’d consider it a good confidence-builder.’’

That confidence and the consistent play across the board could come in very handy. The Falcons don’t have to play again until the night after Christmas. That game is at New Orleans, and the Falcons have to win it to have any chance at becoming the first team in history to win NFC South titles in back-to-back seasons.

Smith set off a minor celebration after the game when he told the players they don’t have to practice again until Tuesday.

“Four or five days off couldn’t come at a better time,’’ Ryan said.

The break might also allow the Falcons to get injured cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) back on the field. Having a fully healthy secondary could be crucial against the pass-happy Saints, who defeated the Falcons in overtime in their Nov. 13 meeting in Atlanta.

That loss hit the Falcons hard, coming as it did against a Saints team with which they have kindled one of the league’s top rivalries in recent years.

But the Falcons will get another shot at the Saints. This time it comes when the Falcons seem to be playing up to their potential, and they should be rested and healthy.

“That’s the advantage of a short week,’’ Smith said. “You get a long week after it. That will give us time to prepare for a team that’s playing as well as any team in the league.’’

Rapid Reaction: Falcons 41, Jaguars 14

December, 15, 2011

ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons’ 41-14 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The Falcons are 9-5 and very much in the playoff picture. They won with ease and might have put forth their most complete game of the season. There were explosive plays in the passing game and from the pass rush and it all came together in a short week. The best news of all might be that the Falcons can build off this performance because they’ll have a few extra days to get ready for their next game, which might be the biggest game of the season (see below). With the big lead, coach Mike Smith began resting some of his starters late in the third quarter. The extra time off might allow the Falcons to get injured cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) back in the lineup.

Throwback game: Defensive end John Abraham is 33 and, because he came into the game with just five sacks on the season, there was some talk that age was catching up to him. But Abraham showed he’s got something left in the tank. He had 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and was a major reason Jacksonville couldn’t get anything going in the passing game. Abraham had plenty of help. Defensive tackle Corey Peters and defensive end Ray Edwards also were productive in the pass rush.

Milestone time: Atlanta’s Roddy White went over 1,000 receiving yards for the fifth consecutive season, a franchise record. White also became just the eighth receiver in NFL history to have five straight 1,000-yard seasons with at least 80 catches in each season. White started slowly this year, but has come on strong lately. He caught two touchdowns against the Jaguars and now has at least one touchdown catch in each of the past four games.

What I liked: The Falcons were consistently good throughout the game. I don’t think you could say that about their previous 13 games.

What I didn’t like: Rookie punter Matt Bosher was having a good game, until he had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown in the third quarter.

Troubling trend: Running back Michael Turner was held under 100 rushing yards for the fourth consecutive game. Since his arrival in Atlanta in 2008, Turner has had only one other four-game stretch in which he failed to reach 100 yards.

What’s next: The Falcons play the Saints in a "Monday Night Football" game in New Orleans on Dec. 26.

Halftime observations on the Falcons

December, 15, 2011
ATLANTA – The Falcons hold a 27-0 lead on the Jacksonville Jaguars at halftime. Let’s run through some observations on the first half.
  • The Falcons were extremely efficient on their first offensive drive. Matt Ryan completed all four of his pass attempts for 57 yards and capped the drive with a touchdown pass to Julio Jones. It was the 90th touchdown pass of Ryan’s career.
  • The pass rush, which hasn’t been a point of pride most of the season, looked pretty good early in the game. John Abraham sacked Blaine Gabbert on Jacksonville’s first offensive play. Defensive tackle Corey Peters had a sack that was negated by a penalty. Abraham forced a Gabbert fumble late in the second quarter with yet another sack. Linebacker Curtis Lofton recovered the fumble to set up an Atlanta field goal at the end of the half. Abraham now has seven sacks on the season.
  • Rookie punter Matt Bosher struggled early in the season. But the Falcons stuck with him and that’s starting to pay off. Bosher has been kicking better recently. He got off a booming punt early in the second quarter that was muffed by Jarett Dillard. Sean Weatherspoon recovered the ball at Jacksonville’s 5-yard line and Michael Turner scored on the next play.
  • Cornerback Brent Grimes missed his third consecutive game after having what the team described as minor knee surgery. But Grimes is on the sidelines in street clothes and appears to be walking well. The Falcons, like a lot of teams are pretty guarded about injuries, but I’m guessing there’s a decent chance Grimes could return for the next game, Dec. 26 in New Orleans.
  • Peters suffered a knee injury sometime in the first half. He left the game briefly, but returned.
  • Receiver Roddy White caught a touchdown pass late in the second quarter. White now has a touchdown catch in each of the past four games.

Grimes, Hayden out for Falcons

December, 15, 2011
ATLANTA – The Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars just announced their inactives for Thursday night’s game.

The Falcons will be without injured cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Kelvin Hayden. The other inactives are quarterback John Parker Wilson, linebacker Spencer Adkins, center Brett Romberg, offensive lineman Kirk Chambers and defensive end Cliff Matthews.

For the Jaguars, quarterback Dan LeFevour, running back Deji Karim, cornerback Robert McClain, center John Estes, receiver Mike Thomas, receiver Cecil Shorts III and defensive end Matt Roth are inactive.

Live from the Georgia Dome

December, 15, 2011
ATLANTA — I’m at the Georgia Dome, which is pretty close to empty, but that will change in a few hours.

I’ll be back with the inactives roughly 90 minutes before kickoff. But let’s get ready for the game between the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars by taking a look at some numbers from ESPN Stats & Information.
  • Since the arrival of coach Mike Smith in 2008, the Falcons have the best home record in the NFC. They’re 24-6 at the Georgia Dome. The New Orleans Saints have one less home win in that same span and that ties them for second in the NFC with the Green Bay Packers.
  • Smith was the defensive coordinator for the Jaguars from 2003 until he took the Atlanta job.
  • Atlanta receiver Julio Jones has four 100-yard games this season. That’s the most by a rookie since New Orleans’ Marques Colston had four such games in 2006. Anquan Boldin set the post-merger rookie record with five 100-yard games in 2003.
  • Atlanta’s Michael Turner hasn’t had 100 rushing yards in any of the last three games. If Turner doesn’t reach 100 against the Jaguars, he’ll match a four-game streak from 2009 in which he didn’t reach the century mark.

Five things to watch: Falcons-Jaguars

December, 15, 2011
ATLANTA -- Five things to watch in Thursday night’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars:

Julio Jones. The rookie wide receiver has had some ups and downs throughout the season, but he’s coming off perhaps his best game of the year. Jones caught two second-half touchdown passes in Sunday’s come-from-behind victory against Carolina. There’s never been any doubt Jones is an exceptional talent, but he and the Falcons experienced some early growing pains. A game like the one in Carolina might bring Jones’ confidence level to a new high and quarterback Matt Ryan and the coaching staff might trust him to do even more. Jones might be hitting the point where he’s turning from rookie to veteran.

Atlanta’s pass rush. The Falcons have only 25 sacks on the season and that puts them in a tie for No. 24 in the league. If they want to really take control of this game and take another step toward solidifying a playoff berth, the pass rush has to be better. Jacksonville rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert still is very capable of making big mistakes. But the Falcons have to force him into mistakes.

Who’s watching MJD? About the only really good thing the Jaguars have going for them is running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Atlanta’s run defense has been pretty good all season, but Jones-Drew presents a different challenge than the typical running back. He can run inside and outside and also catch passes. Second-year linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has been emerging as a star. This could be the game where he really establishes himself. Weatherspoon is the one Atlanta linebacker with enough speed to keep Jones-Drew from getting into the secondary too often.

The secret weapon. Jones isn’t the only rookie who is emerging for the Falcons on offense. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers gradually has been getting more touches and he caught a pass for a touchdown against Carolina. Even though Michael Turner has been bothered by a groin injury in recent weeks, he still is going to get the bulk of the carries for the Falcons. Rodgers took some time to learn the playbook and earn the trust of his coaches, but he’s at a point where he can ease Turner’s load a bit and bring an element of speed out of the backfield that the Falcons didn’t have before.

Four for four. If the Falcons win, they’ll have nine victories. That would mark the fourth straight winning season for Atlanta, which is far more remarkable than it first sounds when you put it into historical context. Before coach Mike Smith arrived in 2008, the Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons. Smith hasn’t had a losing season yet and you can go ahead and start calling him the best coach in franchise history.