Falcons vs. Cardinals
When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Phoenix
TV, radio: NBC (WXIA-TV); 550-AM, 92.9 FM
Web site: www.atlantafalcons.com
FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta coach Mike Smith can only hope John Abraham and Lawyer Milloy are quick healers.
With just four days to prepare for a wild-card game at Arizona, the Falcons aren’t the same aggressive defense without Abraham, one of the NFL’s elite pass rushers, and Milloy, their most experienced run-stopper.
Even more disconcerting is Atlanta’s discrepancy in turnover margin since its Week 10 victory over New Orleans.
Despite winning five of their last seven games, the Falcons had just five takeaways during that span as quarterback Matt Ryan’s interceptions accounted for six of Atlanta’s 12 giveaways.
The Falcons, at minus-3 for the season, and Minnesota, at minus-6, are the only two teams in either conference to make the playoffs after ending the regular season under zero.
"I think there’s a number of factors that can lead to a turnover, and we’ve been addressing it the last few weeks," Smith said Monday. "It’s imperative in the playoffs because I think it will come down to turnovers. The team that wins the turnover battle is probably going to win. We’ve been very fortunate."
Abraham, whose 161/2 sacks were a career high and led all NFL defensive ends this season, didn’t play in the second half of a 31-27 victory over St. Louis because of shoulder, neck and thigh injuries that have bothered him the last seven weeks.
Though he made every start for the second straight year and earned his fourth Pro Bowl invitation, Abraham was held to low snap counts in games and a limited number of reps in practice since suffering a mild concussion in a Week 12 win over Carolina.
If the Falcons (11-5) had been fighting for a playoff spot instead of trying to earn a higher seed by beating the Rams and hoping Carolina would lose at New Orleans, Abraham insists he would’ve played in the second half. Instead, with a postseason berth assured the previous week at Minnesota, Atlanta didn’t dress left end Jamaal Anderson (high ankle sprain) for the first time in his career and used Abraham sparingly.
Reserve ends Chauncey Davis and Kroy Biermann combined for seven tackles and two sacks.
"We’ve got a big playoff run coming up, so I just had to make sure I was as rested as possible," Abraham said. "Chauncey and Biermann both stepped up. That’s also a good sign for us, so if something does happen, we’ve got people who can fill in."
It’s no secret that Arizona (9-7) will try to win an aerial attack led by three first-team Pro Bowl picks, quarterback Kurt Warner and receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
Coming off a 34-21 home victory over Seattle, Warner was sacked just once as he completed 19 of 30 passes for 263 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Atlanta will need Abraham, Anderson, Davis and Biermann to bring steady pressure against the immobile Warner, who has lost seven of his last 10 starts when he’s sacked at least twice.
Arizona’s ranks last in the NFL in rushing, so if Milloy can return for his first playoff game since his 2001 season with eventual Super Bowl champion New England, the Falcons can rest him more frequently and in coverage schemes that require a third cornerback.
A back injury sidelined Milloy for the first time in 94 games as the four-time Pro Bowl safety missed just the sixth game of his 13-year career.
"If I’m not out there, that means I’m injured," Milloy said. "I tried to give it a go, but that’s what an NFL player is supposed to do. I wouldn’t have been able to play up to my caliber of expectations. It was a weird feeling, but my guys rallied around the situation."
Milloy’s absence was evident whenever Rams running back Steven Jackson broke into the second and third layers of the Atlanta defense. The difference between Jackson, who ran 30 times for 161 yards and two touchdowns, and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson the week before is that the Rams held onto the football.
The Vikings lost four of seven fumbles in Atlanta’s 24-17 victory. Peterson and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson combined to give up three of their five miscues.
Smith sidestepped whether Milloy, Abraham or Anderson will be ready against Arizona.