The Atlanta Falcons hope a strong finish to the regular season will help build enough momentum to avoid another early playoff exit.
After earning a playoff spot last season, the reeling Detroit Lions are relegated to the role of spoilers this time.
The visiting Falcons can clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs by handing the Lions a seventh consecutive loss Saturday night.
Atlanta (12-2) went 13-3 in 2010 and 10-6 last season but lost its first playoff game each season. The Falcons also fell in Week 16 both seasons, but are poised to end that trend and build on Sunday’s 34-0 rout of the New York Giants.
“I think it’s important that you’re playing efficiently and effectively in December and January, and I think that’s what every team is striving for,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith who is 0-3 in the playoffs. “I think over the last two seasons, the teams that were playing well in December and got really rolling were the teams that had the most success and the teams that ultimately were the world champions. So I think momentum is very important.”
The Falcons, who host Tampa Bay next weekend, need one win to secure home-field advantage but also can clinch the No. 1 seed with a Green Bay loss or tie and San Francisco defeat. Regardless, Atlanta would feel more comfortable entering the playoffs on a three-game winning streak.
“We still have some things in front of us, in terms of the regular season, that we want to accomplish and get done,” said quarterback Matt Ryan who has already broken his own team records for completions (369) and passing yards (4,202) in a season.
Ryan was 23 of 28 for 270 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against the Giants. He’s thrown six TDs and one pick in the last three games while posting a 102.7 passer rating - third-highest in the NFL over that span.
Julio Jones caught two of the scores Sunday, giving him four TDs in the last four games. Michael Turner ran 16 times for 52 yards but found the end zone for a fifth straight game. Thomas DeCoud recorded his team-leading sixth interception as the Falcons held New York to 256 total yards en route to posting their first shutout since a 24-0 win at Oakland on Nov. 2, 2008.
Turner gained 122 yards while Ryan threw for 218 with a touchdown and two interceptions in Atlanta’s 23-16 win at Detroit last season.
Avoiding a third consecutive loss to the Falcons is not the only means of motivation for the Lions (4-10), as they’re also trying to avoid their first seven-game skid since their 0-16 season of 2008. A playoff team last season at 10-6, Detroit bottomed out with Sunday’s 38-10 loss to an Arizona team that was riding a nine-game losing streak.
“You have something to prove every week regardless of winning streak, losing streak, what happened the previous week,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “This is a week-to-week business. The people that keep their eyes on that, that are consistent from week to week, are the people that are successful in this league.”
With its playoff hopes gone, Detroit can possibly postpone the Falcons’ home-field advantage plans and even end Chicago’s postseason chances in Week 17.
“You always want to have something positive going into the next season,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “We’re going to definitely see Chicago twice next year. We’re going to see, possibly, Atlanta, hopefully next year in the playoffs or some situation like that. You want to play as best as possible and get used to these teams.”
Against Arizona, Detroit, which lost its previous five games by an average 5.2 points, managed 312 total yards - 94.5 less than its NFC-leading average - and two of Matthew Stafford’s three interceptions were returned for TDs.
“People are competitive, people have pride. People have confidence in themselves,” said Stafford, who has thrown one TD and four picks in the last two games. “I think that’s what helps people bounce back from stuff like this.”
The only real bright spot for Detroit is star Calvin Johnson who needs 182 yards to break Jerry Rice’s single-season record of 1,848 receiving yards from 1995. Johnson, who caught 10 passes for 121 yards Sunday, has averaged 9.3 receptions and 147.0 yards over the last seven games. However, he only has five touchdowns all season.
Johnson has caught 12 passes for 222 yards with a TD in two games versus Atlanta.