NFC West: Atlanta Falcons
They planned for the final game played at Candlestick Park to be special. They set a 2012 NFC Championship Game rematch between the 49ers and the Falcons. However, the Falcons have not held up their end of the bargain. They are 4-10 as they try getting revenge against the 49ers for their road win in the title game in January.
The 49ers have done their part, as they are 10-4 and can clinch a playoff berth with either an Arizona loss at Seattle or by beating the Falcons. The 49ers are focused on sending out Candlestick the right way.
Coach Jim Harbaugh said this week the 49ers are the group that “doesn’t want to screw up" the Candlestick finale.
ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson discuss the game:
McClure: Bill, the 49ers and Vernon Davis had their way in the passing game against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. And the Falcons have had trouble covering tight ends again this season. Do you think Davis will expose their poor coverage once again?
Williamson: The 49ers' passing game is really coming together. The return of Michael Crabtree has sparked it. Crabtree has played the past three games and he is getting better each week. It opens up possibilities for Davis and Anquan Boldin. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Davis have a nice chemistry. Davis is a mismatch for nearly every defense and he's particularly good against defenses that struggle against the tight end. He had eight catches for 180 yards against Arizona in October. Vaughn, do you see any way the Falcons can slow down the 49ers’ receiving weapons?
McClure: Not really. The Falcons started three rookies in the secondary last Sunday against the Redskins and gave up pass plays of 62 and 53 yards, the latter for a touchdown. All three rookies -– cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and free safety Zeke Motta –- made some mistakes in coverage. But Trufant has held his own most of the season after coming in as the team’s first-round draft pick, so he’s going to compete, but Alford still has some ground to make up. Motta might not even play with regular starter Thomas DeCoud possibly returning from a concussion. However the Falcons line up, they have to play with better eye discipline and technique. Not to mention the pass rush has to make an effort to put pressure on the elusive Kaepernick or else he’ll carve up the Falcons and let loose to Davis, Boldin, and Crabtree.
The Falcons were supposed to be challenged heavily by the read-option this season with matchups against Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Kaepernick. Wilson didn’t use it much and RGIII didn’t play. So, will Kaepernick and the 49ers utilize the strategy on Monday night, or has it just not been as effective this season?
Williamson: They haven’t used it much this season. It’s been used occasionally. But I will tell you this: Kaepernick has been running with a lot of confidence in the past few games. I think it is because the passing game has opened up and it has affected the entire offense positively. Vaughn, do you get the sense the Falcons have a lack of confidence facing Kaepernick and this offense because of the loss in the NFC title game?
McClure: The Falcons can’t be too confident about much of anything, at 4-10. From a defensive standpoint, six starters who faced Kaepernick last season either are no longer with the team or have been benched. And if DeCoud doesn’t return this week from a concussion, there’s a possibility that five rookies will start against the 49ers offense come Monday night. It will be quite a lesson for those players, to face a true dual-threat quarterback. The Falcons haven’t looked too confident the past two weeks defending against a pair of backup quarterbacks, Matt Flynn and Kirk Cousins.
A lot has been made of Aldon Smith's off-field issues this season. In fact, Falcons receiver Roddy White actually stepped out and said Smith was a "good dude" who just made a mistake. How has Smith responded after his time away from the team, and is he back to his normal self on the field yet?
Williamson: Yes, Smith is back to his dominating self. He has been back for six games and he was eased into the defense after missing five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse. Smith has been particularly good for the past four games, and he’s been dominant the past two games. He is his normal self as a pass-rusher and he is continuing to grow as a complete player. He is a major cog in a defense that is playing at a high level. Vaughn, do you see any way the Falcons can slow Smith and crew Monday night?
McClure: No. Not at all. This offensive line has been like a sieve all season long. Don’t be fooled by the Falcons being ranked eighth in sacks given up per pass attempt. They’ve allowed Matt Ryan to be sacked or hit way too many times despite Ryan making a conscious effort to get the ball out quicker this season. Right now, the Falcons are relying on second-year left tackle Lamar Holmes to protect Ryan’s blind side, and Holmes is coming off being abused by Brian Orakpo of the Redskins. Plus, the Falcons have to be aware of Ahmad Brooks along with Smith. I covered a game last season during which the 49ers totally dominated the Chicago Bears with a swarming pass rush, led by Smith. I can envision the same thing happening to the Falcons.
Just ask Arizona Cardinals linebacker John Abraham. His split from the Atlanta Falcons back in March was acrimonious and left a bitter taste in his mouth for a while. He swore last week there aren’t any hard feelings, but to make sure that chapter of his life was closed once and for all, Abraham went back to his past just one more time.
Before Sunday’s game against the Falcons, Abraham tweeted out this photo:
Selected shoes for today pic.twitter.com/2INwKMvxLk
— John Abraham(Mr.100) (@55getlive) October 27, 2013
Yes, those are Nike cleats with the Falcons logo inside the heel. Yes, he wore those during the game.
But to Abraham it was a way of pushing the past out while ushering in the present. The last time he wore those cleats was last season’s NFC Championship Game. And to Sunday’s game, Abraham wore the same shirt he wore when he signed with the Cardinals, which is the same shirt he wore when he was inducted into the Senior Bowl’s Hall of Fame this year.
“It’s my good luck shirt now, I guess,” he said.
Abraham was sent the cleats last Saturday – by whom, he would not say – and decided to wear them one last time. He even put in white shoelaces to “make it show off a little more.”
“It was fun,” Abraham said of playing the Falcons. “I think I enjoyed everything. I was sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk to [Atlanta coach] Mike [Smith] and [Falcons owner] Arthur [Blank], but that’s what I do before games. I don’t talk to people.”
The NFL's active leader in sacks, Abraham added a 125th sack to his list Sunday, bringing down former teammate Matt Ryan.
“It’s cool, though, because I got Matt,” Abraham said. “It’s just me and Matt, 'cause Matt’s a cool guy. If you meet Matt, he’s the only guy I know who can walk around anywhere and you don’t know who Matt Ryan is, unless he’s Matt Ryan. He’s just so cool and so laid back.
“You would never know he was getting that much money.”
But you know what kind of cleats Abraham wore to bring him down Sunday.
At 3-4, Arizona is vying for a win before its bye week. Atlanta, on the other hand, is a week removed from its bye and comes in at 2-4.
Injuries have hampered both clubs, which need to find their way back to the winning path.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure discussed Sunday’s game.
Weinfuss: At 2-4, I’m guessing this season hasn’t been what the Falcons had expected. What specifically has gone wrong and is this the week they rebound?
McClure: Josh, injuries have absolutely decimated the Falcons this season, none bigger than losing top receiver Julio Jones to season-ending foot surgery. A hamstring injury has kept Steven Jackson sidelined since Week 2, although he’s scheduled to return to practice this week. And No. 2 receiver Roddy White missed the first game of his NFL career in Week 7 while nursing hamstring and ankle injuries. Add on a season-ending injury to defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann (Achilles), a lingering knee issue for left tackle Sam Baker, and a short-term injured reserve situation for linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot), and you’re talking about a team with almost as many starters in street clothes as in uniform. That being said, I think the Falcons started the process of rebounding with Sunday’s 31-23 win over the Buccaneers, ending a three-game skid. Quarterback Matt Ryan was flawless while working with some unheralded receivers, and the defense ignited the team with an early touchdown off a sack-fumble play. The offensive line protected better than in any other game this season.
But I think the line will have a tough time against the Cardinals’ front. Wouldn’t you agree?
Weinfuss: I would, especially with the Cardinals playing the way they have. The front three of DT Darnell Dockett, DE Calais Campbell and NT Dan Williams have been rejuvenated under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. In his system, Bowles did away with the multigap format and took the reins off players. Now, when the ball is snapped, each lineman has one goal in mind: Get to the quarterback, which has also transformed one of the worst run defenses into one of the best. The more the Cards can push up the middle, the more quarterbacks and running backs are bolting outside, right into the arms of outside linebackers Matt Shaughnessy and, a familiar name for Falcons’ fans, John Abraham. Each lineman has his own strengths. Williams can fill a lot of space straight up the middle. At 6-foot-8, Campbell is a lot of body to handle for any lineman before he stands up and gets in the quarterback’s face. When Dockett comes with a full head of steam, he’s tough for anyone to stop.
Speaking of stopping, the Cardinals haven’t been able to contain tight ends this season. Will Tony Gonzalez be able to have a big day?
McClure: Gonzalez has had an incredible season, especially when you consider he’s 37 years old. I’ve watched him constantly beat double coverage. The Patriots and Jets decided to defend him in red zone situations like they do a gunner on special teams, which ticked off coach Mike Smith. That tells you what type of attention Gonzalez still draws. The thing that impresses me the most is how much Gonzalez works on his craft at the start of practice. He doesn’t just go out there and go through the motions. And he’s shared some of his knowledge with rookie tight end Levine Toilolo. Although Gonzalez was targeted just four times the last game as Harry Douglas emerged, I expect Ryan to look for him a lot more this Sunday.
Will Carson Palmer be all about getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald in the Cardinals’ passing game?
Weinfuss: Everyone wishes Palmer was all about getting the ball to Fitzgerald, but that hasn’t been the case. But at the same time there hasn’t been a receiver who’s emerged. It seems to be a flavor of the day situation. One game it’s Fitzgerald, another game it’s Michael Floyd and yet another it’s Andre Roberts. The Cards don’t have any secret weapons. The receivers Palmer will be throwing to is pretty predictable. However, when Palmer goes through his progressions, he typically has more success. How often that happens is up for debate. And an issue around here lately is trying to get the tight ends more involved, specifically Rob Housler. During the offseason, Bruce Arians talked at length about how the tight end is an integral part of the offense, but after Housler missed the first two games with an ankle injury, Roberts shined. Since Housler returned, Roberts rarely has his number called, and the offense has struggled.
With all the injuries lately, how has receiver Harry Douglas handled the extra workload, filling in for guys like Julio Jones and Roddy White?
McClure: Douglas handled it better than anybody expected, at least anybody outside the locker room. He responded with a career-high 149 receiving yards last week against Tampa Bay, catching all seven passes thrown his way. Everybody talked about Douglas just being a slot receiver, but he pointed out to me how he always lined up outside in college at Louisville. He's no Julio Jones, but Douglas showed the ability to get vertical with receptions of 54 and 37 yards, the latter for a touchdown. I was surprised that the Bucs didn’t ask Darrelle Revis to cover Douglas all over the field, although they did have a couple of encounters. It might be hard for Douglas to have the same success against Patrick Peterson, a player one ex-defensive coordinator told me is the best cornerback in the league right now. But the Falcons need at least one of their unheralded receivers to step up if they hope to beat the Cardinals.
Speaking of Peterson, has he surpassed Revis?
Weinfuss: In some ways, yes, and others, no. Peterson is by far the most athletic cornerback in the league -- and I know that'll rankle Seattle fans, but even Richard Sherman has come out and said it. But is he as good of a shutdown corner as Revis? I don’t know if we can say that just yet. He’s very good and, only in his third season, getting better. Revis is better on man-to-man coverage and Peterson is better in making up lost space. But give Peterson time. Within a few years, he’ll be better.
Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 3 p.m. ET. See you there.
Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel Les Snead, who accepted the job Saturday, has worked with four head coaches and two interim coaches during a Falcons tenure dating to 1998. Dan Reeves, Bobby Petrino, Jim Mora and Mike Smith were the head coaches. Wade Phillips and Emmitt Thomas were the interim coaches.
Snead's ability to rise through the ranks with the Falcons across multiple regimes and an ownership change suggests he's adaptable. The Rams hired Fisher to remake the team. They wanted a GM to provide the personnel expertise to facilitate the transformation.
Snead worked under Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff most recently. He replaces former Rams general manager Billy Devaney, who had also come to St. Louis from the Falcons' front office.
Snead, listed by the Falcons as 37 years old entering the 2011 season, is about 15 years younger than Fisher. He was a tight end at Auburn from 1992-93, where he played with NFC West alums Chris Gray and Frank Sanders.
The Rams did not immediately announce the hiring. Snead interviewed over the phone for the San Francisco 49ers' GM job a year ago, but the team hired Trent Baalke instead.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Greg Knapp's hiring as the Seahawks' offensive coordinator raised questions about whether Seattle would become predominantly a running team. Knapp's offenses in Atlanta and Oakland favored the run by a wide margin.
Former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren always thought a team needed to pass the ball effectively to win playoff games. Knapp echoed that thought during an interview with KJR radio's Dave Mahler. This is an audio file, so be warned.
Knapp: "I am a big believer in balance. You can't be dominant in one or the other and expect to win in the playoffs. You can probably get to the playoffs being like that, but if you want to win the playoffs, you have to have balance and you have to do both well."
Knapp also pointed to his time as the 49ers' offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2003 as evidence he can favor the passing game when the personnel dictates. The 49ers ran the ball 51.3 percent of the time on first down during those years.
As the chart shows, the percentages rose to 56 percent with the Falcons from 2004 to 2007 and 54.1 percent with the Raiders over the past two seasons.
Knapp: "If I was to be interviewed after my San Francisco days, they probably would have emphasized, 'Why do you throw the ball so much?' With Jeff Garcia and my times with Steve Young, we had a lot of success throwing the ball. The makeup of the personnel there said, 'Let's do that.' My last two stints it has not been that way because for one, we had a running quarterback in Atlanta and two, in Oakland, we had a very young quarterback in JaMarcus Russell. The running game is your best friend for a young quarterback."
Knapp indicated he will probably work Seneca Wallace into the offense, possibly with Hasselbeck also on the field. Wallace's mobility could pair nicely with some of the zone blocking schemes in the running game, Knapp indicated (with the zone run going one way and the keeper or keeper fake going the other way). Knapp also said he was eager to have an experienced, traditional passing quarterback as his starter.
Despite his pass-happy reputation, Holmgren's offenses ran the ball 1,827 times and passed the ball 1,827 times on first down during the same period, 2001 to 2008. Go figure.
Knapp: "A lot of it is dictated by the personnel. Here we have a very experienced, Pro Bowl, played-in-a-Super Bowl quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck and I am
kind of licking my chops because I am back with a guy who has a lot of savvy, a lot of experience, has made tough decisions in close ballgames and has done well. It helps my cause as far as what to choose from when you are using the playbook."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are so close -- but so far away -- from their first Super Bowl appearance. Bickley: "This a young team full of charismatic, likeable players. The locker room is a friendly place. The jerk factor is really low. Larry Fitzgerald has jumped over Amaré Stoudemire as the best show in town. This is the kind of team that already has changed the balance of power in Arizona sports, and considering the way the Suns are playing, that's probably a good thing."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic traces the Cardinals' rise over the last two years -- and the last two weeks.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic quotes Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb as saying coach Andy Reid doesn't wear a beard very well.
The Arizona Republic samples predictions for the NFC Championship Game, but you'll have to click through this item to see find Somers' prediction (he likes the Cardinals to win, 24-21, with home-field advantage on their side).
Also from the Arizona Republic: A clearinghouse for recent stories about the NFC Championship Game.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals must appreciate the moment even though the Super Bowl promises so much more.
Don Banks of SI.com asks Falcons coach Mike Smith to break down the championship games. Smith pays tribute to the Arizona crowd. He said the Falcons were shocked at the noise levels, which exceeded anything they had experienced in other domed stadiums. Smith also pointed to Antrel Rolle's conversion to safety as a key for Arizona.
Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune says 60 minutes of football can reverse 61 years of futility for the Cardinals.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune says crowd noise and history are on the Cardinals' side.
Also from Tulumello: Arizona's offensive line faces a stiff test.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Seahawks are moving closer to filling out Jim Mora's staff, starting with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The team has advised several existing assistant coaches to look for jobs, an indication that Seattle expects its new coordinators to make staff changes.
Given that new head coaches often hire former associates, I wanted to provide a list of the assistants Mora worked with during his tenure as the Falcons' head coach from 2004 through the 2006 season.
I'll break down his former assistants by how many years each assistant spent with Mora in Atlanta. The list will provide context for names that could arise in the coming days and weeks.
PHOENIX -- All rise. Please remain standing while the honorable IAmJonasJones takes his well-deserved place on the Wall of Fame.
The Wall, honoring those who pick NFC West scores and outcomes exactly, had not welcomed a new member since Week 14. That changed when IAmJonasJones predicted a 30-24 Cardinals victory over the Falcons in the wild-card round Saturday. Way to go!
- Elion245. Forecast the Redskins' 20-17 victory over the Seahawks in Week 12.
- Leesters. Forecast the Bears' 27-3 victory over the Rams in Week 12.
- habitat730. Forecast the Cardinals' 34-10 victory over the Rams in Week 14.
- IamJonasJones. Forecast the Cardinals' 30-24 victory over the Falcons in a wild-card playoff game.
Leesters' name will remain on the Wall even though he declined to make a prediction, feebly offering the following explanation: "I respectfully decline. The old Cardinal fan in me is coming out. I am fearing the worst."
Wall of Fame board members considered levying against Leesters a one-week suspension from the Wall for blatant fan disloyalty, but after consulting the Cardinals' history, Leesters is forgiven. We trust he won't let it happen again.
We had 30 predictions calling for a Cardinals victory, which means the Cardinals cannot accurately claim that "no one outside this locker room" gave them a chance.
Several people came very close to hitting the final score. Vendigital missed by one point (30-24). Fieldsy missed by two points (28-24). Billynutzz (27-24) and cronrath10 (30-27) missed by three points. Joblo876 (30-20) missed by four points and loweryj36 (31-28) missed by five. Among people picking the Cardinals, dean613 predicted 30 points for the Cardinals (17 for the Falcons), while six predicted the Falcons' point total correctly.
Thank the Cardinals for keeping "You called it" going longer than NFC West bashers would have expected. We'll take predictions for the divisional round later in the week.The fine print: Those submitting predictions for "You called it" must pick the winner correctly for their scores to be considered. Scoring is easy to calculate. The difference between a 20-17 prediction and a 31-14 outcome would be 14 points. We would calculate this by adding the difference between 20 and 31 to the difference between 17 and 14.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
PHOENIX -- The Cardinals' ground game was effective against the Falcons without amassing fat yardage totals.
We saw that in Arizona's ability to succeed with play-action passes. According to Jason Paradise of ESPN Stats & Information, Warner completed 8 of 8 passes for 121 yards, one touchdown and a perfect 158.3 rating on play-action passes. When Warner did not fake a handoff, he completed 11 of 24 attempts for 150 yards with one touchdown, one interception and a 62.8 rating.
Those numbers reflect what Warner is talking about when he discusses what balance means to an offense. He's not talking about having as many carries as passes. He's not talking about having as many yards rushing as passing. He's talking about what the threat of a running game can mean for a team with Pro Bowl players at quarterback and receiver.
The coaching staff leaned on the run early and revisited it late. The offensive line seemed to block well most of the time. "You can't run flea flickers and play action without those guys blocking well," Larry Fitzgerald said.
Warner completed all three pass attempts for 63 yards when using play action on the final drive. That helped the Cardinals hold the ball for the final 4:15.
|Chris Morrison/US Presswire|
|Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald was one of several Cardinals' stars to step up their game Saturday in a 30-24 wild-card win over Atlanta.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Framed with some justification as one-dimensional, undisciplined playoff pretenders from the NFL's worst division, the Cardinals revealed themselves Saturday as much more.
"Obviously, people have said, 'Same old Cardinals, they should give up their playoff spot the way they've played the last couple weeks,' " veteran defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "That's fine. We understand that when we put our hands in between those stripes, we are a tough team to beat at home."
We now know what to make -- nothing -- of the Cardinals' slide from 7-3 to 9-7 over the final six games of the regular season. If anything, the slide invited ridicule that helped the Cardinals refocus.
"Everyone was kind of kicking us and we sucked it up and decided to get back to work," Pro Bowl special-teamer Sean Morey said. "Guys have committed themselves to this team in the postseason and it's important to this team. There is a lot of team chemistry here. Guys play for one another. When you do that, you play with purpose."
The Cardinals were the more balanced team Saturday. They appeared more disciplined in following their defensive assignments. They were surer tacklers. They were more opportunistic. They were more resilient. And they finished more impressively than they had done all season, holding the ball for the final 4:15.
That is how teams win in the playoffs, even if the Cardinals didn't always win that way during the regular season.
"A lot of the things that we've worked on that we have struggled with this year, we've continued to stay true and it really paid off for us today," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
A closer look at 10 things we learned about the Cardinals:
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Cardinals appear considerably more legitimate as a playoff contender after beating the Falcons at their own game.
With Edgerrin James running effectively to set up big pass plays, the Cardinals showed they could follow the traditional formula for playoff success. That makes them more of a threat to compete in the divisional round.
The Cardinals also dramatically improved their tackling after letting too many running backs and receivers escape their grasp in key situations during the regular season.
Arizona can point to a 14-play, 76-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter as the turning point in their evolution from potential pass-happy pretenders to a team with staying power.
The Cardinals' aggressive play-calling is another strength moving forward. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley play to win.
Instead of sitting on the ball while protecting a 30-24 lead with four minutes remaining, the Cardinals completed pass plays of 15, 25 and 23 yards. This team heads into the divisional round with confidence, an evolving identity and nothing to lose.