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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (4-9) at Atlanta (8-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Apparently, the Atlanta Falcons overcoming a 16-point deficit was taxing for Mike Smith.
The 52-year-old head coach exited the team plane before it departed Charlotte following the Falcons' 31-23 defeat of Carolina this past Sunday, when the visitors scored 24 unanswered points in the final two quarters to overcome the Panthers.
Smith spent the remainder of the night in a local hospital, got a clean bill of health from doctors and returned to Atlanta via team owner Arthur Blank's private jet early Monday morning.
He was at Falcons practice Monday night in preparation for Thursday's game with the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars at the Georgia Dome, but was reluctant to discuss the incident beyond bare-bones specifics, claiming only that it was a non-emergency situation.
"I wasn't feeling very well and our medical staff wanted to take the necessary precautions and advised me to go to the hospital there in Charlotte," Smith said. "We went to the hospital and ran some tests and had some evaluations done and I came home [Monday] morning.
"I feel a whole lot better [Monday] than I did yesterday, I can assure you of that."
The team had planned Monday night's light practice before Smith's medical scare, in anticipation of a short week prior to the visit from the Jaguars.
"I'm really embarrassed to have to even be talking about it," he said. "I don't want to talk about it. I'd prefer to talk about the way our guys played in the second half and we've got a short week and we've got to get ready for Jacksonville."
Atlanta is second in the NFC South, trailing first-place New Orleans by two games while holding a one-game edge over Chicago and Dallas for one of two conference Wild Card berths.
The Falcons are 6-4 within the NFC and have a road game against the Saints next week before finishing up at home against Tampa Bay.
Smith said no changes were planned to his coaching routine.
"Not at all," he said. "I'm going to have to evaluate some of the things I do, not in coaching this team. But in terms of how we coach this team, we're going to keep doing it the way we've always done it simply because it's the only way I know how to do it.
"No shorter hours. Maybe this week just a little bit."
As for Jacksonville, week No. 2 of the Mel Tucker Era was by all means a success.
The Jaguars scored a season-high 41 points -- just the second time they'd exited the teens all season -- en route to a 27-point thrashing of visiting Tampa Bay on Sunday in their second game since Tucker was named interim coach in the aftermath of Jack Del Rio's firing.
The output was the Jaguars' highest in a game since they beat Oakland, 49-11, in 2007.
And while long eliminated from the playoff race at 4-9, an upset on the road at Atlanta could ultimately lead Jacksonville to a strong finish in the final two weeks, where it'll meet Tennessee and Indianapolis -- two of the four teams it's beaten so far in 2011. Not to mention what it might mean for Tucker in terms of shedding his interim status.
"We've got to do a great job of preparing, more mentally than anything," Tucker said. "We've got to get the game plan in. We've got a short week to do that and then we have to make sure that physically, our guys are ready to play.
"I've already made a decision that I'm going to do whatever I can to help the football team, first and foremost, and put the team first. Once you make a decision, once you commit, then that makes it easy from that standpoint," he said about ignoring concerns about the future.
Jacksonville has won three of four lifetime matchups with Atlanta during the regular season, with its most recent victory in the series a 13-7 home triumph in 2007. The Jaguars also bested the Falcons by a 30-7 count on the road in 1999, but Atlanta got even via a 21-14 decision at the Georgia Dome during the 2003 campaign.
This teams also squared off in Jacksonville during this year's preseason, with the Jaguars posting a 15-13 win on Aug. 19.
Both Smith, who served as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator under former head coach Jack Del Rio from 2003-07 before coming to the Falcons, and Tucker will be opposing one another -- as well as their counterpart's respective teams -- for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Given some help by their defense, the Jaguars were able to record a season-high in points against their in-state rivals from Tampa Bay, scoring on drives of 77, 49, 74 and 55 yards in addition to getting a pair of defensive touchdowns. Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert (1783 yards) led the last of those four drives in the all-important fourth quarter and ended with 217 passing yards on a 19-of-33 completion clip. He connected with six receivers overall and five more than once, led by fireplug running back Maurice Jones-Drew's six catches for 51 yards and a pair of scores. As usual, Jones-Drew (1222 rushing yards) was an impact-maker while carrying the ball as well, churning out 85 yards on 27 carries and adding two more scores. A second-quarter touchdown gave him 90 for his career and broke the Jacksonville franchise record he'd shared with Fred Taylor. Among the receivers, Rice alumnus Jarett Dillard caught five balls against Tampa Bay and tight end Marcedes Lewis (32 receptions) notched two.
One week after they'd been gashed for 146 rushing yards against Houston, the Falcons gave up 157 more against Carolina -- albeit in a winning outcome. The Panthers scored three touchdowns on drives of 60 yards or more in the opening two quarters, but were held scoreless over the final 30 minutes while Atlanta turned a 23-7 deficit into a 31-23 victory. Still, Carolina's 416 total yards and 259 passing yards were additional eyesores and came in above the statistical averages the Falcons' defense had chalked up through 12 games. Second-year linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (104 tackles) had nine tackles, a sack and a pass break-up in the victory and has reached double-digits in tackles three times this season, while recording seven or more on three other occasions. End Ray Edwards (29 tackles, 3 sacks) also added a sack for an 11- yard loss against the Panthers, while safety Thomas DeCoud (66 tackles) had three stops.
By the numbers, the Jaguars on offense are 28th in scoring (14.8 ppg), dead last in both total yards (260.1 ypg) and passing (140.8 ypg) and 10th in rushing (119.3 ypg). Atlanta on defense is 11th in points allowed (20.5 ppg), 14th in yards allowed (336.5 ypg), 22nd against the pass (241.3 ypg) and fifth against the run (95.2 ypg).
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
A 320-yard, four-touchdown performance from quarterback Matt Ryan (3474 passing yards, 23 TD, 12 INT) went a long way toward erasing the defensive concerns last week for the Falcons, who had six receivers with at least one reception and the team leaders -- wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez -- finished with seven apiece for a combined 166 yards and a touchdown. Ryan passed Falcons alums Chris Chandler and Chris Miller and moved into second on the franchise's all-time list for touchdown passes in the win. He has eclipsed the 3,000-yard passing mark three times in his young career and is within range of becoming Atlanta's first 4,000-yard passer since Jeff George set the franchise record of 4,143 yards in 1995. Ryan has not thrown an interception in three of his past four games as well. Running back Michael Turner (1068 yards, 8 TD) reached four digits in rushing yards on the season with 76 yards against the Panthers, while White (75 receptions, 965 yards, 6 TD) leads the team in catches. Tight end Gonzalez (73 receptions, 7 TD) has caught at least 60 passes in 13 straight seasons and has at least one catch in 176 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Jacksonville gave up a pair of long scoring drives in the initial 16 minutes against the Buccaneers, but went on to hold them scoreless for the final 44. The Bucs managed only 280 yards (110 rushing, 170 passing) for the game, below the average the Jaguars had been permitting opponents through their first 12 contests. Linebackers Russell Allen (33 tackles), Paul Posluszny (102 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and Daryl Smith had a team-high seven tackles apiece, while Posluszny and cornerbacks Ashton Youboty and Kevin Rutland each intercepted Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman. Smith, cornerback Drew Coleman and tackle Tyson Alualu each recorded a sack as well during the win. Tucker had to make do with a lot of spare parts last week, as veteran Rashean Mathis (34 tackles, 1 INT) and fellow cornerbacks Derek Cox (22 tackles) and William Middleton (38 tackles, 1 INT) are lost for the season due to injuries, as is linebacker Clint Sessions (30 tackles, 1 sack).
Statistically speaking, the Falcons on offense are 14th in scoring (23.1 ppg), 13th in total yards (365.8 ypg), 10th in passing (254.2 ypg) and 18th in rushing (111.6 ypg). Meanwhile, the Jaguars on defense are seventh in points allowed (19.4 ppg), fourth in both total defense (302.3 ypg) and against the pass (190.8 ypg) and 16th against the run (111.5 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Which Tucker-led team shows up -- the one blown out by San Diego two weeks ago or the one that rallied to pound Tampa Bay? That will determine the team's competitiveness in a road game at a playoff contender.
Atlanta's Ryan has been a forgotten commodity for much of the season as other young quarterbacks (Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, etc.) have earned more headlines. He's played well lately, however, and will be a key player to any deep Falcons run.
Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee tweaked a groin in the win over the Buccaneers and could be a question mark if called upon in a tight spot. The Jaguars were considering signing a short-term back-up kicker for Thursday's game, and his status will be one to watch.
Though the Jaguars piqued some interest last Sunday with their suddenly inspired and prolific play, a short-week trip to a team that runs, throws and plays defense on a higher level isn't exactly an easy assignment. If Tucker can pull this off he may take the lead in the franchise's coaching race, but it's more likely to end in the other direction.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Jaguars 14
12/13 16:42:03 ET
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