Falcons prep for Lions after dismal loss to Ravens

The defense of Baltimore reared its head Sunday as Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons were smothered by the Raven’s D.  Ryan was sacked five times for a loss of 42 yards.

“I think they’ve got a big menu in terms of what they do defensively,” Ryan said. “I thought we were on top of schematically what they wanted to do. Our issue came down to execution. I thought they out-executed us. They played better than we did.”

The Falcons got back to work this week preparing for the Detroit Lions who are coming off a 24-23 victory over the New Orleans Saints.  The game will take place in Wembley Stadium, in London, U.K. at 9:30 A.M. Eastern time. The game is sold out.

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THE FIFTH DOWN; Wild-Card Matchups: N.F.C.

3. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3, South)

6. DETROIT LIONS (10-6, wild card)

The Saints are the team nobody wants to play, particularly at the Superdome, where they have rewritten large sections of the offensive record book this season. The Lions have the battle scars to prove it. On Dec. 4, Detroit ventured into New Orleans and fell behind, 17-0, and trailed at halftime, 24-7, on the way to a 31-17 New Orleans victory. It’s no secret why. The Saints, with the top passing offense, have more weapons than any other team in the N.F.L. The 6-foot-6 tight end Jimmy Graham is practically uncoverable, and when teams try to double-team him, they leave somebody like Marques Colston alone. When the Carolina Panthers tried to blanket Graham on Sunday, Colston had 145 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns. Drew Brees merely set the single-season mark for passing yards and broke his own record for completion percentage.

Expect more of the same in this game, which should be a shootout. In the teams’ regular-season game, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford threw for 408 yards, outgunning Brees (342). Both teams can rush the passer, but that does not seem to matter to either quarterback. What foiled the Lions last time was an inability to finish drives – for all that yardage, they scored just two touchdowns.

The Lions’ defense is a wild card. The pass rush has been formidable – Cliff Avril is the sack star this season – but Detroit was scorched by Aaron Rodgers’s backup, Matt Flynn, in the regular-season finale in a game that did not matter for the Packers. Consider that a warning.

KEY TO THE GAME The Lions should hope that Brees decides to retire this week. Short of that, a fast start by the Lions’ offense is essential because no coach has a better killer instinct when he gets a lead than the Saints’ Sean Payton.

4. GIANTS (East winner)

5. ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6, wild card)

The Falcons got a lucky break in the final game. If the Lions had beaten the Packers, the Falcons would have had to return to New Orleans, where the Saints humiliated them last Monday, 45-16. Instead, Matt Ryan will face the Giants’ explosive offense, but exploitable defense, far more vulnerable to the pass than the Saints’ defense is.

The Falcons have been a bit of an enigma, beating middling or worse teams (Jaguars, Panthers, Seahawks, Vikings) and losing to most of the playoff-caliber ones (Saints, Texans, Packers). The second loss to the Saints highlighted their biggest problem: they struggle against the pass. Discount the blowout of the Buccaneers on Sunday – that says more about how Tampa Bay quit than it does about how the Falcons stack up with other playoff teams. Still, the Falcons badly needed a big win to feel better heading into the playoffs, and they got it. Running back Michael Turner had been struggling with a groin injury, but he broke out with 172 yards and 2 touchdowns on 17 carries.

But keep an eye on the rookie receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons’ offense might not have been able to keep up with the Saints, but that does not make them unique. Jones could bedevil defenses that rank near the bottom of the league against the pass, and that makes the Falcons a dangerous playoff team. The pressure will be on Ryan to beat the relentless pressure that the Cowboys or the Giants can bring – the Falcons allowed just 26 sacks this season – and to try to keep pace with the offense on the other side.

KEY TO THE GAME The Falcons will have to protect Ryan from some of the best pass rushers in the N.F.L. to give the offense a chance to keep up with a quarterback who is having a superb season.

1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (15-1, North)

The Packers lost some steam down the stretch, their defense hurt by the run (199 yards by Chicago on Dec. 25) and the pass defense woeful throughout the season. But the bye will serve its intended purpose: everybody can get healthy before the divisional round, especially receiver Greg Jennings (knee), defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (concussion) and several offensive linemen.

2. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (13-3, West)

They entered the final Sunday with the league’s best scoring defense (they did not give up a rushing touchdown in their first 14 games), which has allowed them to play a conservative, virtually error-free offensive style. That formula will get an extreme test if the seeds hold up and their divisional round opponent is the Saints.

This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.

PHOTOS: Saints receiver Marques Colston (PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL HABER/ASSOCIATED PRESS); Wide receiver Julio Jones of the Falcons (PHOTOGRAPH BY KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES)


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THE FIFTH DOWN; Analysis: Curiosities Abound in the Playoffs’ First Round

The most extraordinary thing about the N.F.L.’s first-round playoff games this year is that the presence of the Detroit Lions is not one of the most extraordinary things.

This weekend’s games include a duel between two quarterbacks who passed for 5,000 yards, neither of whom is the league’s most valuable player and one of whom is not even a Pro Bowler. A 12-4 team from a great division is on the road against an 8-8 team from a terrible one. A division champion on a three-game losing streak faces a wild-card team that was 1-5 against opponents that finished with winning records. Two playoff participants were outscored by their opponents for the season: the Giants by 6 points and the Broncos by 81. Two of the teams have not won a playoff game in two decades. Another is in the playoffs for the first time.

Here is an early look at what to expect this weekend, though because almost nothing has happened as expected so far this season, it may be of dubious worth.

Bengals at Texans

Each team should get a participation trophy, the kind Little Leaguers throw away when they reach adolescence. The Cincinnati Bengals have not won a postseason game since 1990. The Texans are in the playoffs for the first time, and fans in Houston have not seen a playoff win since 1991, when Warren Moon of the Oilers beat Ken O’Brien and the Jets. (Even when we go back in time 20 years, the Jets manage to lose.) The Lions last won a playoff game after the 1991 season, so there will be fans drinking beer in taverns this weekend who were drinking infant formula the last time any of these three cities were represented in the playoffs.

The race among the Tennessee Titans, the Jets, the Oakland Raiders, the Denver Broncos and the Bengals for the final A.F.C. playoff spots was like a bunch of irresponsible teenagers trying to get a job by listing each other as character references. The Bengals pointed to their win over the Titans for credibility, the Titans to their win over the Broncos, the Broncos to their wins over the Raiders and the Jets, the Raiders to their win over the Jets, and the Jets to their ability to call more attention to themselves than anyone else. It was an M. C. Escher illusion, a stairway stacked on top of itself, and it collapsed in Week 17.

At one point, the Jets’ playoff hopes rested on Mark Sanchez and the Texans backup Jake Delhomme simultaneously playing well, which is like hoping that all of the planets in the solar system align and the resulting gravitational force generates some kind of megatidal wave. That did not happen, and the Titans were the only one of the five teams in question to win their final game, though the victory was irrelevant because of an early-season loss to the Bengals. Do not worry if you are confused; neither of these teams is going to reach the A.F.C. championship game.

Lions at Saints

Lions games are like the coliseum uprising scenes in gladiator movies. There is mayhem, posturing, confusion and violence, some of it disturbing, some of it choreographed and slapstick. All that is missing is Ndamukong Suh overturning a chariot after recording a sack. Going 10-6 is probably akin to throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression, so you can forgive the Lions’ over-exuberance, even if you cannot picture Matt Millen as Commodus.

The Lions’ 45-41 loss to the Green Bay Packers, while thrilling, contained some trademark moments of cartoon violence, including Coach Jim Schwartz whirling his headset like nunchaku and bonking himself on the back while arguing a call. At one point, a confused Suh sacked the Packers backup Matt Flynn and celebrated by imitating Aaron Rodgers’s ”wrestling belt” move.

In December, the New Orleans Saints beat the Lions, 31-17, while Suh was serving a two-game suspension for self-parody. Without Suh, the Lions committed only two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, one unnecessary roughness penalty and one face-mask penalty, in addition to various encroachments.

This game is Suh’s first appearance in the Superdome since he became a Chrysler pitchman who works for the Ford family and gets into auto accidents while driving a classic Chevrolet. The Superdome is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, naturally.

Falcons at Giants

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