Colts vs. Falcons
When: 1 p.m. today
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons are still holding down a playoff spot.
Their margin of error is much smaller, though, and any hopes of a division title appear to have slipped away.
All because of a slump over the past month — sparked by a perplexing drop-off from the offense — that leaves the Falcons (6-3) in a bit of desperation mode heading into Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts.
After an off week, Atlanta is eager to turn things round.
“There is absolutely a renewal,” said rookie coach Dan Quinn, always the optimist. “I certainly felt that from the players and from the coaches.”
The Falcons started the season 5-0, taking advantage of a favorable schedule that included all four teams in the mediocre NFC East. Since then, they’ve lost three of four, broken up only by an ugly 10-7 win at Tennessee.
Despite having a franchise quarterback (Matt Ryan), perhaps the game’s best receiver (Julio Jones) and an emerging star at running back (Devonta Freeman), Atlanta has averaged less than 17 points a game during its slide. Turnovers and troubles in the red zone have been the major culprits.
“We just need to get back to executing in the way we are capable of,” Ryan said. “We’ve had opportunities. We just haven’t made them the way we’re capable of.”
The Falcons are tied with Green Bay for the wild-card lead and at least two games ahead of their closest challengers.
They have fallen three games behind Carolina (9-0) in the NFC South, but still have two games left against the Panthers.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Freeman said. “Everything that we want to accomplish is still out there, the playoffs and possibly trying to win our division and go to the Super Bowl.”
The first priority is knocking off the Colts (4-5), who are actually tied for the lead in the AFC South despite a tumultuous year that has sparked debate about the future of coach Chuck Pagano.
Indianapolis will have to get by without quarterback Andrew Luck, who is recovering from a lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle that could keep him out up to six weeks.
Fortunately for the Colts, they have a capable backup. Forty-year-old Matt Hasselbeck already won two starts earlier this season when Luck was injured.
“It’s very comforting to know you’ve got a guy in your building who has won games for you and can operate at a high level and run the offense,” Pagano said. “He’s got obviously a ton of experience and the guys in the locker room have great faith in Matt and believe in him and trust him.”
The Falcons trust they can get back to playing like they did the first five weeks.
This would be a good time to get started.
“The opportunity in front of us is an awesome one,” Quinn said. “I can’t wait for this challenge.”
Here are some things to watch for when the Falcons host the Colts:
WHERE’S RODDY: Atlanta spent the last two weeks looking for ways to spark the offense. One obvious option: More throws to veteran receiver Roddy White, who is on pace for the worst season of his career. He has been targeted only 30 times, with 17 receptions for 230 yards and one touchdown. “We just want to make sure we’re featuring everybody in the best way,” Quinn said. “We’ve got some really talented guys and I can’t wait to try to match them up in the very best way.”
BURNED THROUGH THE AIR: Ryan and Jones must be salivating at the thought of going against the Colts’ pass defense, which is the fifth worst in the league. Over the last four games, they’ve surrendered 1,080 yards and seven touchdowns through the air. Making matter worse, Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams is dealing with a left ankle injury that could keep him out of Sunday’s game.
CHASING HISTORY: Jones is on pace for one of the greatest receiving seasons in league history. He has 80 catches for 1,029 yards and six touchdowns, giving him a shot at eclipsing Marvin Harrison’s single-season receptions record (143).
LUCK’S INPUT: Luck is expected to travel to Atlanta, but the Colts are uncertain if he will be on the sideline during the game. Hasselbeck would like to have Luck in his ear, helping with reads and calls, as he was when the backup led victories against Jacksonville and Houston. “I told Andrew I’m going to rely on him heavily,” Hasselbeck said.
IN THE TRENCHES: While Luck can provide helpful input, Hasselbeck really needs the guys up front. The offensive line has been under the gun for Luck’s rash of injuries this season: shoulder, ankle, ribs, and now the kidney and abdominal muscle. It should help to have a quarterback that knows a thing or two about avoiding unnecessary hits.