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NFL Preview - Buffalo (5-9) at Atlanta (7-7)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Don't tell the Atlanta Falcons that they're playing for nothing. As they get set to square off against the Buffalo Bills at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, the Falcons are no longer a player in the postseason race, but figure to carry some motivation into the contest nonetheless.
The injury-riddled team scratched its way to a 10-7 win over the New York Jets at the Meadowlands last Sunday, with a six-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to tight end Tony Gonzalez in the closing moments providing a display of jubilation for a Falcons team that had struggled to a 1-4 mark in its previous five games.
The victory helped keep Atlanta in line for a winning season, and with victories over the Bills and Buccaneers in their last two contests, the Falcons will have managed the first back-to-back winning marks in their 46- year franchise history.
The triumph over the Jets was anything but a thing of beauty for Mike Smith's squad, which saw running back Michael Turner go down early in the game with a re-aggravation of his ankle injury, and the offense struggle for most of the day. Eight of Atlanta's 11 drives ended in punts, as Matt Ryan (16-of-34, 152 yards, 1 TD) showed a bit of rust in his return to the field. Ryan had missed most of the previous three games due to a bout with turf toe, and the Falcons had slipped from contention as backup QB Chris Redman presided over a pair of losses in his two starts.
But with Ryan back, and within the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome, history suggests the Falcons will have a terrific chance to score win number eight on Sunday. Ryan is 12-1 in home starts over his two-year career, including 5-0 this year, with the only loss coming last Nov. 16th against the Denver Broncos.
Another reason for optimism for the Falcons this week involves the plight of their opponent, the Buffalo Bills.
The injury-depleted Bills saw their miserable 2009 season encapsulated perfectly during last week's 17-10 home loss to the New England Patriots, as the team saw both of its top quarterbacks go down with injuries. Starter Ryan Fitzpatrick and former starter Trent Edwards both suffered ankle injuries in the loss. Edwards was lost for the season with his ailment, while Fitzpatrick seemed like something less than 50-50 proposition to suit up at mid-week.
That left scout team quarterback Brian Brohm, a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers last season who washed out before ever taking a snap with the team, as the Bills' only healthy quarterback. The former Louisville star will open Sunday's game unless Fitzpatrick can rally or recently re-signed journeyman Gibran Hamdan is deemed more suitable to start.
Hamdan, whose only meaningful NFL pass attempts came as a member of the Washington Redskins in 2003, had been waived on Nov. 19th after spending parts of three seasons on the Buffalo roster.
Buffalo (5-9) will clinch sole possession of last place in the AFC East with its next loss.
The Falcons lead their all-time series with the Bills, 5-4, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 24-16 win at Buffalo during the 2005 campaign. Atlanta has won two in a row over the Bills since Buffalo scored a a 23-17 home win over the Falcons in 1995. The Bills are 0-3 in Atlanta, including a 33-30 loss when they last traveled to the Georgia Dome in 2001, since notching their lone win there in 1973.
The Falcons' Smith and Bills interim head coach Perry Fewell will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Whoever takes the reins at quarterback for Buffalo on Sunday will walk into an extremely difficult situation. The Bills have been ravaged by injuries along the offensive line, and at this stage a group that has allowed a bloated 44 sacks on the year (including six last week) is employing backups almost exclusively. That situation has rendered two very good wideouts - Terrell Owens (47 receptions, 4 TD) and Lee Evans (35 receptions, 6 TD) - largely ineffective, though Evans did have a touchdown catch last week and No. 3 receiver Josh Reed (27 receptions, 1 TD) somehow managed to catch four balls for 63 yards in the Patriots loss. The running game, led by the underrated Fred Jackson (811 rushing yards, 42 receptions, 3 TD) along with Marshawn Lynch (447 rushing yards, 2 TD, 26 receptions), will probably be the preferred mode of travel for the Bills on Sunday. Jackson had 112 combined rushing- receiving yards against the Patriots last week and has an outside shot at a first career 1,000-yard season.
Given the Bills' inexperience at quarterback and on the offensive line, this could be a week when Atlanta greatly increases its season total of 25 sacks. Ends John Abraham (30 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Kroy Biermann (44 tackles, 5 sacks) are among those who will be looking to blow up the Buffalo QB on Sunday, which in turn should help a beleaguered secondary that has been a major component of the team's rank of 30th in NFL passing defense (254.8 yards per game). Abraham had a sack of the Jets' Mark Sanchez last week, while cornerback Brent Grimes (55 tackles, 4 INT) had two INTs of the rookie and safety Thomas DeCoud (63 tackles, 3 INT, 2 sacks) notched one. When Buffalo attempts to run it with Jackson or Lynch, an Atlanta run-stopping group that ranks 20th in the league (116.5 yards per game) will look to stem the tide. Linebackers Curtis Lofton (128 tackles) and Mike Peterson (100 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) have been among the Falcons' top tacklers this year, while tackle Jonathan Babineaux (39 tackles, 5 sacks) has been active at the point of attack.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Though Ryan (2443 passing yards, 17 TD, 12 INT) is not totally over the turf toe that forced him to the sideline during a critical stretch of the Falcons' season, the second-year-pro is expected to play through pain again this week. Most of Ryan's damage this year has been done down the field to wideout Roddy White (71 receptions, 8 TD) and the trusty tight end Gonzalez (78 receptions, 6 TD), with the occasional Michael Jenkins (44 receptions, 1 TD) sprinkled in from time to time as well. Turner (871 rushing yards, 10 TD), meanwhile, has not been ruled out for Sunday, though it is unlikely that Atlanta would rush him back into the lineup under the circumstances. That means Jason Snelling (398 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 5 TD) and Jerious Norwood (173 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 1 TD) should spend most of the time in the backfield. Snelling carried 16 times for 59 yards in the loss to the Jets, while Norwood made his 11 touches count for 69 total yards in one of his most productive efforts of the season. The Atlanta line has allowed a modest 23 sacks on the year, including none last week.
And the hits just keep on coming for the Buffalo Bills defense. Rookie safety Jairus Byrd (groin), the NFL leader in interceptions as Week 16 begins, was shut down for the remainder of the season on Wednesday, just one day after the team opted to place cornerback Terrence McGee (shoulder) on season-ending injured reserve. Their absence won't help a unit that is No. 1 in the league in interceptions recorded (26) heading into Sunday, though capable playmakers like safeties Donte Whitner (49 tackles, 2 INT) and George Wilson (94 tackles 4 INT, 2 sacks) are still around in the secondary. An otherwise weak Bills pass rush is led by end Aaron Schobel (50 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT), who revealed earlier this week that he is considering retirement at season's end. Then there is a Buffalo rushing defense that ranks dead last in the league (165.6 yards per game) and has been pushed around in the front seven all year despite the presence of seemingly capable players like middle linebacker Paul Posluzsny (92 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) and defensive tackle Marcus Stroud (53 tackles, 2 sacks).
Needless to say, the quarterback situation for the Bills makes using any Buffalo players a riskier proposition than usual. Jackson has been steady and might have had a big day under normal circumstances, but the Falcons figure to stack the box against him and challenge whatever Buffalo QB is in the game to throw downfield.
Turner's injury makes rolling with any of the Atlanta running backs problematic. If he is certain to be out, Snelling makes for a good starting choice against a terrible Bills run defense, and Norwood would be an above- average flex play given that scenario. In the passing game, both White and Gonzalez should contribute something, but Ryan is a low-end fantasy option at quarterback.
Don't overthink this one. Winning in the NFL is hard enough when you have a well-prepared quarterback, and since Buffalo has nothing of the sort, and wasn't overly talented to begin with, the Falcons should run away and hide here. Though the season has been a disappointing one for Atlanta, the team has continued to play hard for Mike Smith (see: last week), and still has a chance at making history with a second consecutive winning season. Look for the Falcons to make the most of a very favorable situation here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 34, Bills 7
12/23 23:34:45 ET