NFL Preview - Atlanta (12-2) at Detroit (4-10)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Week 16 of the NFL season kicks off on Saturday night when the NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons travel to Detroit to face the underachieving Lions.
The 12-2 Falcons can secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win over the Lions or if both Green Bay and San Francisco lose on Sunday.
"We still have some things in front of us, in terms of the regular season, that we want to accomplish and get done," said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
Detroit, meanwhile, is in the death throws of a miserable year with the only intrigue surrounding stud receiver Calvin Johnson, who will resume his pursuit of Jerry's Rice single-season record for receiving yards. "Megatron" has 1,667 yards this season, putting Rice's record of 1,848 yards well within reach with two games to go.
Atlanta captured at least a modicum of revenge against the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants last Sunday, and made quite a statement in doing so.
Ryan tossed three touchdown passes, including a pair to Julio Jones, as the Falcons dealt New York its first regular-season shutout in 16 years with an authoritative 34-0 victory at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons offered up a receipt for their 24-2 throttling at the hands of Big Blue during last season's NFC Wild Card Playoffs behind a near-flawless performance from Ryan. The standout quarterback completed a sharp 23-of-28 passes for 270 yards without a turnover.
Jones ended with 74 yards on six catches and Tony Gonzalez added a touchdown grab for the Falcons.
"Atlanta was very, very good and we were very, very bad," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin remarked. "We came out and did exactly what we said we couldn't afford to do, which was turn the ball over."
Atlanta's defense did its part as well, intercepting the Giants' Eli Manning twice in the first half and stopping New York on downs three times over the course of the game.
"In my opinion, this was the best game we put together so far," said Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel."
The Lions, meanwhile, are coming off their latest embarrassing loss, a 38-10 setback to the lowly Arizona Cardinals in the desert.
The Cards' Beanie Wells had three scores on the ground in that one and Arizona also returned two interceptions for touchdowns as the Cardinals snapped a NFL season-high nine-game losing streak.
Arizona managed just 196 yards of offense in the game, but took full advantage of four Detroit turnovers by turning them into 28 points to win for the first time since September.
"People are competitive, people have pride. People have confidence in themselves," Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. I think that's what helps people bounce back from stuff like this,"
Stafford was picked off three times and finished the game 24-for-50 with 246 yards for the Lions, who are in the midst of a six-game losing streak.
"That's about as bad as I can play," Stafford said. "For us to be successful, I need to play a whole lot better than that and I understand that."
The lone bright spot of the game for Detroit was Johnson, who caught 10 passes for 121 yards. He tied the NFL record with his seventh straight 100-yard receiving game, which was also accomplished by Charley Hennigan in 1961 and Michael Irvin in 1995.
Johnson, who is just 182 yards away from breaking Rice's single-season record, now has 106 receptions in 2012, a new career-high, and is the first player in NFL history with consecutive 1,600-yard receiving campaigns.
Atlanta topped the Lions in the Motor City last season, 23-16, when Ryan rushed and threw for a TD, and Michael Turner ran for 122 yards. The Lions, however, lead the all-time series 23-11 but the Falcons have won four of the past six and their coach, Mike Smith, has never lost to Detroit (2-0).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
These are two high-powered offenses with Detroit actually leading the NFC with 406.5 yards per game and the Falcons less than 30 yards behind that.
The big difference is how they take care of the ball. Ryan, who has already broken his own franchise records for completions (369) and passing yards (4,202) in a season, pilots a club which is plus-nine in turnover ratio. Stafford, meanwhile, continues to struggle with his mechanics at times and the Lions are minus-9 on the season.
Things only get tougher for the Lions this week after they shut down emerging defensive tackle Nick Fairley with a shoulder injury. Fairley, the 13th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, injured his shoulder in the fourth quarter of the Lions' 27-20 loss to the Packers on Dec. 9.
In 13 games this season, the Auburn product recorded 34 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks and became a disruptive presence on the one defensive unit Detroit can count on -- the defensive line. To fill his roster spot, the Lions signed journeyman defensive tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo.
The Lions haven't lost seven straight since their dismal 0-16 season of 2008 and it's hard to believe how badly they have fallen off from last season's 10-6 playoff outfit.
"You have something to prove every week regardless of winning streak, losing streak, what happened the previous week," embattled Detroit 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."
Consistency describes the Falcons, who were 13-3 in 2010, 10-6 last season and are now 12-2 with two weeks to go. The thought process in the ATL, however, is all about the postseason since Atlanta has made losing in the first round a habit, one they hope to break by finishing the 2012 campaign strong and entering the playoffs with a hot hand.
"Momentum is very important," said Smith. "Sometimes it's difficult to measure and quantify it. When you use the word momentum, you use the word passion. You use the word purpose.
"It's important that you're playing efficiently and effectively in December and January. That's what every team is striving for. Over the last two seasons, the teams that were playing well in December and January and really rolling were the teams that had the most success. Momentum is very important."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 28, Lions 20
12/20 09:35:43 ET