ReFo: Falcons @ Lions, Week 16
Well for what might have been an entirely underwhelming opener to the festive weekend of football, we got what proved to be a historic night as Calvin Johnson ticked off one of Jerry Rice’s many receiving records and the Atlanta Falcons ensured homefield advantage in the NFC Playoffs for the second time in three years.
In terms of the result this was a relatively comfortable victory for the Falcons, but there is no doubt that the game will principally be remembered for other reasons, mainly revolving around Johnson and yet more un-explainable gaffes from the Lions. It was clear from early on that Johnson’s record was about all that mattered to the Lions from this game and their fans got some festive cheer, to help forget, for at least a brief moment, what has been a year in reverse after the positive progress of 2011.
For the Falcons though this was about maintaining momentum gained on Sunday and they now are clear in mind of what they must do from here on out. Only a home playoff victory in three weeks team will do for this team. Here are some of the key performers from a game that ensured that the NFC’s road to the Superdome goes through the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
Two heads are better than one?
In a game that will be largely remembered for Calvin Johnson’s record breaking season this game started out with the Falcons showing that whilst neither of their receivers may be on the level of Johnson in combination they are almost indefensible for any opponent. Both Julio Jones (+1.8) and Roddy White (+2.9) contributed deep scores in this game and White even added one of the easiest 39 yard touchdowns your ever likely to see as the Lions essentially gave him a straight line run to the endzone. This Atlanta offense is definitively built around Ryan and his receivers making plays to control the game, in league with the running game, so to see both receivers playing so well at the end of the season as those crunch playoff games approach. With over 200 yards coming on 15 receptions, including a pair of TDs against the opposition’s #1 corner, this is exactly the sort of production the Falcons need from this pairing if they are to break their playoff duck.
The Samuel Lottery
The closer you get to the playoffs and the Falcons latest date with destiny the more nervous Falcons fans are sure to get about certain frailties in their team that could be the latest weakness that sees them crash early out of the playoffs. One area that is sure to still raise concerns for them is at corner where the pairing of Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel seems to constantly flip between strength and weakness. In particular Samuel who is as likely to win you a game as he is, at times, to lose you it and in a single game scenario who knows which you’ll get? Last night Samuel showed both sides of his game coming up with a pair of characteristically ugly missed tackles as well as surrendering more than 15 yards per completion to Johnson. However he also showed his game winning traits as he took advantage of a wayward pass from Matthew Stafford looking to hit Johnson in his coverage once too many times. That interception essentially won the game for the Falcons, with some cooperation from the ensuing offensive drive, and you wouldn’t bet against him making a similar play at a key juncture in a playoff game. However with Robinson 100 yards in coverage for the third time this season and Sean Weatherspoon missing a career high four tackles you do wonder whether the supposed leaders of the Falcons defense will be an area that Atlanta fans start to get nervous over during their bye week.
Retaining his poise
As much as the questions are over this Falcons team there is one player who is questioned more over the Falcons failings than anyone else and that’s Matt Ryan. Two years ago when he led Atlanta to a #1 seed for the first time in his career his form tailed off towards the end of the season and he was down again in the playoffs. After earning a grade of +26.6 between Weeks 6 and 12 in 2010 he earned a grade of a meager +2.0 in the final six games by comparison. This season Ryan seems to have gotten his blip out of the way earlier in the season (-1.3 grade between Weeks 11 and 13) and he was in fine form again last night in Detroit as he looks to warm up for his first career playoff victory. As much as the Falcons offense is predicated around his success in the passing game it is crucial that he not make mistakes and put pressure on his defense to be anything more than opportunistic and good enough. That was exactly what Ryan did last night getting what he needed from his five deep shots, two touchdowns, and being consistent and productive (23-of-27, 219 yds) on his short and intermediate passes. If a collapse is going to come in Ryan’s form it will be more sudden than when the Falcons spluttered out of the playoffs at home two years ago.
Detroit – Three Performances of Note
Kudos for Megatron
Plaudits will be raining down on Calvin Johnson from all quarters over the coming hours in the run up to today’s kickoffs, but it would be improper for him to get no mention here. We didn’t think you could get much better of a season than Johnson put forth last season and in many ways, in spite of the yardage record, this season has been slightly less impressive than last year was for Johnson. However to put back to back seasons like this together is extraordinary. It was clear from early on that the Lions were almost entirely focused on getting Johnson the record before he came across Charles Tillman next week, a corner against whom he has not had his customary level of success throughout his career. At times it felt like the Lions were trying to manufacture catches and yardage for Johnson, for example he was targeted almost as many times on screens in this game as he had been all season to this point, but as soon as the Falcons surrendered that crossing route to Johnson early on this was always the likely outcome. 80 of Johnson’s yards came on crossing routes with 65 of those after the catch as the Falcons were exploited when they didn’t have the right man sticking with him dragging across the field. The record is creditworthy but it could be easily argued that the Lions’ pursuit of this record came at the detriment of breaking a six game losing streak. Johnson’s pair of drops and his fumble gave an air of inefficiency to the record chase and Stafford’s wayward interception midway through the fourth quarter was a crucial factor in the Lions’ failed attempt at a fourth quarter comeback.
Futile edge rush
The downturn in performance by Detroit defensive ends this season has been one of the key factors in their disappearance from relevance in the NFC. On the Falcons’ first dropback of the game Kyle Vanden Bosch registered a hit but from then on he and Cliff Avril (-4.0) were blanked. Neither player was a factor in run defense either with Vanden Bosch (-2.6) in particular disappointing in a matchup against Tony Gonzalez in which he should have been an impact player in this game. Yet again Gonzalez showed his frailty as a blocker failing to secure blocks even when the angle he was given should have made them an easy block. Vanden Bosch was able to defeat Gonzalez’s blocks but was completely unable to finish a play until he cleaned up for Ndamukong Suh’s penetration for the Lions’ meaningless safety late in the game. Vanden Bosch even did work to undo good work by others, charging in to knock Jonte Green off Michael Turner ensuring Tyrell Johnson had to finish the play. The Lions have some absolute stars at defensive tackle and really the pairing of Vanden Bosch and Avril should have been having a field day this season off of all the disruption they have caused.
A rare blot on the copybook
In an otherwise fine season for Chris Houston (-1.9) this was a disappointing way to bring in the festive season against his former employers. Houston surrendered his third highest single season yardage total of the season and allowed multiple touchdowns in a game for the first time in the last five years. In a defense that has really struggled at times this season Houston has been a real bright spot but it was two plays that torpedoed his evening as he simply couldn’t stay close enough to either White or Jones on their long ball scores. It was also a bad night for rookie Jonte Green who yielded a 100 yard game for the first time in his career. With Drayton Florence missing three tackles on the night this was definitely a night to learn from and put in the past for the Lions’ defensive backfield. They need to learn what went wrong against the Falcons’ physical receivers to ensure the same mistakes don’t happen when Brandon Marshall comes to town as they seek to deprive the Bears of a potential playoff spot next Sunday.
– After registering another three hits in last night’s game Ndamukong Suh took his season total to 19. That is the most hits for any defensive tackle in the five years we have been grading NFL games. Suh has also set a career best this season with 55 pressures (8 Sk, 19 Ht, 28 Hu) and counting.
– In a night for career days Corey Peters (+2.0) matched a career high with four defensive stops in this game, matching his total from the Falcons’ divisional playoff defeat to the Packers back in 2010.
– With his pair of deep ball scoring passes last night Matt Ryan now has ten (along with 2 interceptions) this season and sits just one behind the league leaders in this category; Joe Flacco (11 TDs, 0 INT) and Drew Brees (11 TDs, 7 INTs)
PFF Game Ball
This was Johnson’s night but it was the receivers on the other side who got in their first and had the decisive impact on the game so for that reason Roddy White and Julio Jones share the game ball in what Falcons fans hope will be the start of a special six weeks for this duo.