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NFL Preview - Arizona (4-5) at Atlanta (8-1)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - In some cases, facing an 8-1 opponent in Week 11 of the NFL season would provide a chance for a middling underdog to pick off a sleeping powerhouse.
Not so this weekend at the Georgia Dome.
Rather than a fattened and contented calf, the Arizona Cardinals may encounter slightly more resistance when they visit the Atlanta Falcons a week after the hosts suffered their initial loss of 2012.
Atlanta got through the initial half of the season unscathed, but dropped a 31-27 decision at New Orleans last week that at least briefly pumped some intrigue into what was quickly becoming an uncontested NFC South Division race.
Even with the loss, the Falcons still lead Tampa Bay by three games and the Saints by four, but they arrive this week with an eye on not letting the one loss fester into a streak.
Atlanta hasn't dropped consecutive regular-season games since December 2009.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals, who sit third in the NFC West after a 4-0 start, are looking to avoid a second straight season with a six-game tailspin.
"We have a veteran football team, so we've won games and we've lost games and it's all about the way you bounce back," Falcons defensive back Dunta Robinson said. "One thing I know about this team in the years that I've been here is that we've always bounced back after a loss and I don't expect anything different. I mean, we're 8-1, so you can't be too down and you can't be too disappointed about that. We're still excited about our future."
And it's not as if last week's loss was a blowout.
Atlanta blew a 10-point lead it held in the opening quarter, then rallied from an 11-point deficit to have a chance at a late victory before failing to score from inside the New Orleans 5-yard line in the final two minutes.
The Saints, who'd entered the game with a suspect run defense, held Michael Turner to just 15 yards on 13 carries and limited the Falcons as a team to just 46 ground yards overall. Through the air, quarterback Matt Ryan accounted for 411 yards, three scores and an interception, while tight end Tony Gonzalez had 11 catches for 122 yards and scored twice.
"We've got to do a lot of things better," coach Mike Smith said. "It's not one position group, it's not one guy, it's the entire offense."
On defense, Atlanta was gashed for 148 rush yards and allowed seven catches for 146 yards and two TDs to tight end Jimmy Graham. In the aftermath, veteran end Ray Edwards was released Monday after registering nine tackles and recovering two fumbles in nine games.
As a unit, the Falcons are 20th in the league in total defense (365.6 yards per game). Conveniently, Arizona is 31st in both total offense (295.4 yards per game) and scoring offense (16.0 points per game) and dead last in rushing (76.2 yards per game).
The Cardinals, who opened with defeats of Seattle, New England, Philadelphia and Miami, emerge from their bye week after losses to St. Louis, Buffalo, Minnesota, San Francisco and Green Bay.
Compounding the challenge is the fact that Atlanta is unbeaten in the regular season at home since Nov. 13, 2011, when it lost to New Orleans.
"Physically you won't be that much better but mentally you can be better, especially when you are going through a streak like we are going through now," Arizona safety Kerry Rhodes said. "Wipe the slate clean."
Personnel changes were also the order of the off week on the Cardinals' side, with coach Ken Whisenhunt indicating that youngster Nate Potter will supplant journeyman left tackle D'Anthony Batiste as a lynchpin on an offensive line that's surrendered 41 sacks.
Arizona allowed two sacks in a 31-17 loss at Green Bay on Nov. 4, its last game before the break.
"We're not going to be afraid to make a change," Whisenhunt said. "That's what you have to look at. If it gives us an opportunity to get better and not stay the same, then that's what you have to do, because we've been inconsistent and we're looking for more consistency. When we play consistent football, we're a pretty good football team."
Against the Packers, quarterback John Skelton made his fourth start and threw for 306 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Early-season starter Kevin Kolb remains out indefinitely with a rib injury, and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald - who caught six passes for 74 yards in Green Bay - has reached 100 yards just once this season after getting there six times last year.
Fitzgerald had seven catches for 83 yards in a 41-7 loss at Atlanta in 2010, when Ryan - fourth in the league this year with a 102.6 passer rating - threw for 225 yards and three TDs.
The Cardinals lead the all-time series, 14-11, but Atlanta has won six of the last nine. Whisenhunt is 2-1 against the Falcons and Smith has split two meetings with Arizona.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Falcons' per-game rushing average dipped about six yards after last week's paltry 46-yard effort at New Orleans -- which had entered as the league's worst rush defense -- but expect heavy doses on the rebound this week against an Arizona defense that's surrendered 126.1 yards per week and 4.2 yards per carry.
Michael Turner is 26th in the league with 529 yards on 140 carries and backup Jacquizz Rodgers has 166 yards in 46 more attempts. Both could add nice chunks to those numbers while taking a little emphasis off Ryan and the aerial game.
In past years, an overinflated Falcons team might have been ripe for a one- game anomaly to turn into a two-or-more-game skid. The 2012 unit looks different, however, and with a matchup against a team that's weak in areas where Atlanta is strong, a continuation of homefield dominance is far more likely.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Falcons 24, Cardinals 10
11/15 11:12:30 ET
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