NFL Preview - Tennessee (5-4) at Atlanta (5-4)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - With his team within a half-game of first place and surging into overtime against a primary NFC South foe, Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith decided last week to stiffen his resolve, flex his sideline muscle and go for it on a fourth-and-short deep in his own territory.
A week later, he's still trying to get away from the fallout as the Falcons prepare for a Sunday home date with the visiting Tennessee Titans from the Georgia Dome.
So close...but yet so far.
Instead of a drive-prolonging rush for a first down in last Sunday's showdown with New Orleans, running back Michael Turner was stuffed for a loss on the play, leading to a change of possession and eventually a 26-23 loss for the Falcons, who dropped a game-and-a-half behind the Saints for the division penthouse and into a crowded conference playoff mix.
Atlanta had forced the extra session with 10 points in the final 4:13 of the fourth quarter.
"I know [the decision] will be scrutinized," said Smith, whose team converted its first two fourth downs of the season earlier in the game. "I want everybody to understand I take full responsibility."
To be fair, however, there's a little blame to be spread around.
In spite of big numbers, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense failed to score a touchdown in three red-zone opportunities. Ryan gets his first look at the Titans after setting career highs with 351 yards and 52 attempts last weekend, and Atlanta is just 3-11 when Ryan throws 40 or more passes.
The Falcons are 5-1 this season when Turner gets at least 19 carries. The only loss was last week, when he finished with 96 yards on 22 rushes.
"I would love to be in that situation again," Turner said of the failed play.
Ironically, the Titans lead the NFL in red-zone touchdown efficiency at 71.4 percent. Running back Chris Johnson has 15 yards on 10 carries inside the 20- yard-line this season, but scored on a one-yarder last week at Carolina as part of his season-high 27-attempt, 130-yard effort that helped stake Tennessee to a 30-3 road rout.
It was his second 100-yard game of 2011 after signing a large contract extension shortly before the season. Tennessee ran for 172 yards as a team, helping its league-worst average tick up to 81.3 yards per game.
"We finally gave [Johnson] carries," said head coach Mike Munchak, whose team is 3-0 when Johnson runs 15 times or more. "This was one of those games we have been waiting for."
Atlanta is the third-best rush defense in the league, averaging 90.3 allowed yards per game.
The Titans trail first-place Houston by 1 1/2 games in the AFC South, though the Texans took a major blow this week when quarterback Matt Schaub was lost for the season with an injured foot. He'll be replaced by former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart.
Tennessee has also won 18 of its 20 games against NFC foes.
"It's hard to figure out why that is, but I hope the pattern stays the same," Munchak said. "Going to Atlanta's going to be a great challenge."
Tennessee has defeated Atlanta three straight times to take a 7-5 lead in the overall series, with the most recent victory a 20-13 home triumph in 2007. The Titans also bested the Falcons by a 38-31 score in their last visit to the Georgia Dome, which took place in 2003, and was a 30-17 winner over Atlanta in a matchup held in Nashville in 1999. Atlanta hasn't beaten the Tennessee franchise since a 42-27 home decision over the then-Houston Oilers on Sept. 9, 1990, but is 4-2 all-time against the Titans/Oilers as the host.
Both Smith, a graduate of East Tennessee State, and Munchak have never faced one another, or their counterpart's respective team, as head coaches.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has a 3-2 record against the Falcons with six touchdowns against three interceptions for a 95.2 passer rating in those games, and needs just 188 pass yards to reach 32,000 for his career. In 13 career contests against NFC foes, Johnson averages 108.1 rushing yards per game. He had a season-best 130 rushing yards last week and registered his second 100-yard game of the season, having previously amassed 101 yards in a Week 4 win at Cleveland. Wide receiver Damian Williams had a career-high 107 receiving yards last week and aims for a third straight game with a touchdown catch. Tight end Jared Cook is averaging 16.8 yards per catch in 2011, having gained 335 yards on 20 receptions.
For Atlanta's defense, end John Abraham has 105 1/2 career sacks, second-most among active players, while opposite-side starter Ray Edwards has nine sacks in his past 10 November games. Fourth-year middle linebacker Curtis Lofton has a team-high 85 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception in nine games, while free safety Thomas DeCoud -- another fourth-year man -- has 47 tackles and three interceptions.
Statistically speaking, Tennessee's offense is 21st in scoring (20.7 ppg) and total yards (318.3 ypg), 14th in passing (237.0 ypg) and dead last in rushing (81.3 ypg). On the other side, Atlanta's defense is 15th in points allowed (21.8 ppg), 14th in yards allowed (344.1 ypg), 23rd against the pass (253.8 ypg) and third against the run (90.3 ypg).
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Ryan has won four games in a row against the AFC. In those four, he has completed 86-of-135 pass attempts (63.7 percent) for 1,077 yards with 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 106.9 rating. He also aims for a fourth game in a row against the AFC with at least three touchdowns and a 100-plus rating. The Falcons are 18-0 when Ryan has a rating of over 100 for his career, and he had a personal-best 351 passing yards last week. Turner has six rushing touchdowns in his past six games and has scored 10 times on the ground in his past 10 outings at home. When he has 23 or more attempts in a game during his career, his teams are 21-1, and Turner has 46 rushing touchdowns since joining Atlanta in 2008, second-most in the NFL over that span. Wide receiver Julio Jones has 100-plus receiving yards in three of his past five games and leads NFC rookies with 498 yards and three 100-yard efforts, but the 2011 first-round pick is iffy for Sunday's test after straining his hamstring in the New Orleans loss. Fellow wide receiver Roddy White has 53 catches for 766 yards (127.7 per game) and seven touchdowns in his past six games against the AFC, eclipsing the 100-yard mark in five of those tilts. Since the start of 2007, White has 418 receptions, the second-most in the NFC. In his last game against Tennessee, which took place while with Kansas City in November of 2008, tight end Tony Gonzalez had six catches for 97 yards. He aims for a third week in a row with a touchdown catch.
On Tennessee's defense, rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers, a second-round (No. 39 overall) in last April's draft, recorded his second sack of the season last week. End Jason Jones has two sacks in the past three games and has recorded three in his last four encounters with NFC opponents. Safety Chris Hope posted his first interception of the season last week after returning from a broken arm.
By the numbers, the Falcons' offense is 15th in scoring (23.6 ppg) and 12th in total yards (362.0 ypg), passing yards (240.9 ypg) and rushing offense (121.1 ypg). On defense, the Titans are seventh in points allowed (19.1 ppg), 15th in both total yards (349.4 ypg) and passing yards (224.2 ypg) surrendered and 22nd against the run (125.2 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Though Ryan can put up prolific numbers, the Falcons' recipe for success involves heavy contribution from Turner, who could thrive against the league�s 22nd-best run defense. As previously noted, Atlanta has been highly successful when the running back has received a large workload.
On the other side, a perhaps-resurgent Johnson might find the sledding difficult versus a foe that's third-best in the league stopping the run, and the Titans need him to make an impact to have their best chance of winning.
Getting after the quarterback is a strength of the Falcons, and that could be a factor if they're able to box up Johnson and force Hasselbeck to throw the ball.
Nothing erases an unsuccessful call like a win at home, which surely is the goal of Smith and Atlanta this week. The Falcons match up well against Tennessee in terms of both offensive and defensive strength. Unless Johnson reinvents himself and is able to control the game himself, expect Atlanta to handle the job for him.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 21, Titans 12
11/17 11:42:09 ET