NFL NEWS

Falcons’ road to playoffs goes through New Orleans

Sports Xchange

December 04, 2017 at 3:08 pm.

Dec 3, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Photo Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 3, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Photo Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — If the defending NFC Champions are going to return to the playoffs, they must defeat their arch-rivals New Orleans Saints at least once and maybe twice.

The Atlanta Falcons playoff picture is starting to become clearer.

The Falcons are 7-5 and would not go to the playoffs if the regular season ended today.

“Both teams have two really good running backs that like to get after it,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said Monday. “If you look at both teams, guys who can run, guys who can make plays, we’ve got a couple around here that make some plays and have some pretty good speed, as well.

“If you like running backs, that’s your kind of game. We know both teams have a good pair and both teams are going to use them both.”

The Falcons where pushed down to the seventh seed when the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 24-10 to improve to 8-4 Sunday night.

The Falcons are ahead of Detroit (6-6), Green Bay (6-6) and Dallas (6-6). The Falcons have the tiebreaker over all three of the 6-6 teams, with a head-to-head victory.

According to maketheplayoffs.com, the Falcons have an 11.67 percent chance of winning the NFC South division and a 44.92 percent chance of making the playoffs if they win their remaining games.

“Everything that we want is still in front of us,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said.

The Falcons close out the regular season with games against the Saints (9-3) on Thursday at 8:25 p.m. at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium followed by a game at Tampa Bay (4-8) on Dec. 18, at New Orleans (9-3) on Dec. 24 and Carolina (8-4) on Dec. 31.

“I know this team from the coaches to the players,” cornerback Robert Alford said. “We still know that we are still alive. We just have to do our part and win games. It’s not over yet. We just have to own our division and just win out.”

The Falcons will need to play better against the Saints, who have won eight of their last nine games.

“We have to learn from this game,” Alford said. “We have to see what went wrong and correct those. We’ll watch film and study those guys. Hopefully, we can execute on Thursday.”

Essentially, the Falcons’ playoff hopes have come down to if they can beat the Saints twice. They beat Tampa Bay 34-20 on Nov. 26 and came up short against the Panthers 20-17 on Nov. 5.

“We’ll get ready for Thursday night,” Ryan said. “We’ll get some rest tonight. We’ll get back to work, and I think we’ll be just fine on Thursday. We just have to get our mindset right.”

New Orleans closes out with games against the Falcons (7-5), Jets (5-7), Falcons (7-5) and Bucs (4-8). Carolina (8-4) finishes with games against the Vikings (10-2), Packers (6-6), Bucs (4-8) and Falcons (7-5).

The Seahawks (8-4) are chasing the Rams (9-3) in the NFC West. They close with the Jaguars (8-4), Rams (9-3), Cowboys (6-6) and Cardinals (5-7).

The Falcons (.625) have the toughest schedule between the Seahawks (.583), Panthers (.562) and Saints (.479) based on the record of their opponents. The Bears (3-10), the 49ers (2-10) and the New York Giants (2-10) have been eliminated from the NFC playoff race.

–Falcons starting left guard Andy Levitre, who suffered a left triceps injury against Minnesota on Sunday, is expected to miss the next two to three weeks, according to NFL Media.

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said Levitre wasn’t ruled out and could have returned. Quinn was asked about cornerback Desmond Trufant (concussion), but did not give updates on cornerback Brian Poole (back) and Levitre during his media session on Monday.

The report said Levitre has a partially torn triceps. The team would not confirm the report that Levitre is out for two to three weeks, but acknowledge he’ll have trouble playing against the Saints on Thursday.

Ben Garland replaced Levitre against Minnesota and played 43 of 53 offensive snaps (81 percent). Garland eared the lowest grade (40) on the offense from profootballfocus.com.

Garland, who lost the battle to be the starting right guard to Wes Schweitzer, allowed two quarterback hits, was called for holding and gave up two other tackles.

–The Falcons’ lethal Matt Ryan to Julio Jones passing combination was stymied by the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

The Vikings held Ryan out of the end zone for the first time in 30 games and Jones hauled down just two passes for 24 yards in the 14-9 loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Ryan completed 17 of 30 passes for 173 yards. It was his lowest output since he passed for 172 yards in a 33-10 loss to Seattle on Nov. 10, 2013.

The loss snapped the Falcons’ three-game winning streak and dropped them to 7-5 on the season.

Ryan and Jones had connected 12 times for 253 yards and two touchdowns in the previous game, a 34-20 win over Tampa Bay.

–The Falcons were also inefficient on third downs against the Vikings. They were 1 of 10 against an ornery Minnesota defense.

“I thought we had too many third-and-sevens,” Ryan said. “I think one of the points of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down. We didn’t do a good job of that.”

Jones didn’t have any answers for their third-down woes.

“We were just missing,” Jones said. “We were just off today. Any given Sunday, we were just off today.”

–The Falcons opened the game with a 16-play drive that was marred by three penalties on offensive linemen. Tackle Jake Matthews had an illegal block, while center Alex Mack and guard Ben Garland had holding penalties.

Running back Devonta Freeman, who was making his return after missing two games with a concussion, had five carries for 25 yards on the opening drive. He had a 25-yard run called back on Mack’s holding penalty.

NOTES: RB Tevin Coleman after seeing just eight targets in the past six game, had five targets against the Vikings. He caught three passes for 27 yards. … RB Devonta Freeman rushed 12 times for 74 yards in his first game back after missing two games in the concussion protocol.
… DE Takkarist McKinley had a sack against the Vikings. … CB Brian Poole suffered a lower back injury and will be evaluated day-to-day. He did not play against the Vikings.

REPORT CARD vs. VIKINGS

–PASSING OFFENSE: F – The Falcons tried their quick passing game early and had some success. QB Matt Ryan was under constant pressure and off the mark especially on third downs. The Falcons were 1 of 10 on third downs. Wide receiver Julio Jones was held to two catches for 24 yards. No one else stepped forward to make plays.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus – Devonta Freeman returned to the starting lineup and looked good early. The Falcons opened with a 16-play drive that took 7:24 off the clock, but was mired by three penalties. Jake Matthews had an illegal block, while Alex Mack and Ben Garland had holding penalties. Left guard Andy Levitre suffered a triceps injury. Freeman had five carries for 25 yards on the opening drive. He had a 25-yard run called back on Mack’s holding penalty. He finished with 74 yards on 12 carries.

–PASS DEFENSE: C-plus – Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum moved the ball around to nine different receivers as the Falcons played mostly zone defense with top cornerback Desmond Trufant out with a concussion. Blidi Wreh-Wilson was a surprise starter at left cornerback for Trufant. He held up in coverage, but C.J. Goodwin was beaten badly for a 22-yard gain with the game on the line. Grady Jarrett had a sack to end a Minnesota offensive possession. Rooke Takkarist McKinley also had a sack.

–RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus – Latavius Murray ran hard for the Vikings and busted up the middle for a 30-yard gain in the second quarter. He finished with 76 yards on 16 carries for a strong 4.8 yards-per-carry average. Jerick McKinnon added 24 yards on nine carries.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: C – Matt Bryant made field goals of 38, 36 and 47 yards. He missed a key 45-yard field with 4:58 to play. P Matt Bosher had 4.5 seconds of hang time on his 42-yard punt in the second quarter that forced a fair catch. Bosher had a 54-yard punt that had 5:37 seconds of hang time in the third quarter. Andre Roberts had two kickoff returns for 45 yards and two punt returns for 8 yards.

–COACHING: D – The Falcons were sloppy as they committed seven penalties for 55 yards and killed two promising drives in the first half. The Falcons couldn’t find an answer for the Vikings on third downs. The offense was held to 1 of 10 and the defense allowed the Falcons to convert on 6 of 10. The decision to kick a field goal down five points with five minutes to play wasn’t egregious, but the defense had just given up a 15-play, 89-yard drive that took 8 minutes, 15 seconds off the clock. A three-and-out likely wasn’t in the cards even if the Falcons had closed to 14-12. The Vikings ran the clock out.