Per NFL rules, the NFC South is required to send a team to the playoffs. We can -- and probably should -- laugh at how the division-leading Saints and Falcons are both 5-7, but they're also both coming off of huge Week 13 wins. New Orleans beat Pittsburgh on the road and Atlanta won against the Cardinals at home. These respective wins signal the start of the race down the homestretch, where each side hopes to get its act together just enough to eek out a division title. Look, maybe it's embarrassing, but let's be clear: the NFC South winner gets the chance to host that home playoff game -- no small matter for two historically good home teams -- so the stakes are high.
Atlanta's defeat of the previously 9-2 Cardinals was especially impressive when you look at the team's offense. Matt Ryan and the Falcons put up 29 points and 500 yards of offense on an Arizona defense that had been dominating opponents for most of the year. You can point to the fact that the Cardinals are now relying on a second-string quarterback to run their offense, and that's fair, but to do that to a team that was previously leading the NFL in defensive scoring -- well, that makes you sit up and take notice.
I'm going to try not to overstate things in breaking down Atlanta's chances for the playoffs. According to a multitude of stats, both rate and advanced, the Falcons have the league's worst defense. That makes things rough, bottom line. But a great offense can help hide some of those warts on the defensive side of the ball. Ryan is still one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He's got a patchwork offensive line, but a veritable arsenal of weapons at his disposal.
They say that "defense wins championships," but they also say, "the best defense is a strong offense." Atlanta's going to try to put the latter cliché to the test.
The Falcons won't get the likes of Drew Stanton during the final four games -- they'll face Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, and Cam Newton -- but if Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter can do what he did against arguably the league's best defense in Arizona with some consistency the rest of the way, all bets are off. Koetter's gameplan was intelligent and creative, and the Falcons executed it with aplomb.
The tenets, as far as I could tell, were as follows:
Feed your No. 1
I will say this forever, and I know it's a trite, tired cliché, but to win in the NFL, you need your big-time players to make big-time plays. Julio Jones had maybe his best game as a pro and smoked Patrick Peterson repeatedly to the tune of 10 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown. This was huge in particular against a blitz-happy Cardinals defense that is extremely aggressive and not afraid to take some chances on defense. It did take some chances, and Ryan made Arizona pay by feeding Jones down the field.
With Arizona's Cover-1 blitz, the deep middle safety has no shot at getting outside on a back-shoulder throw. Ryan has always been a fearless downfield thrower and here he trusted Jones to beat one of the best corners in the game right now in Peterson. Having a receiver (or two) that can win the ball down the field even with tight coverage -- that's an extremely valuable commodity, especially in the playoffs when games are tight and defenses are generally stronger. In this game, Ryan was 7-for-7 for 167 yards on throws of 15 yards or more, a cool 23.9 yards per attempt.
Big time players make big time plays.
Utilize the special talents of your skill players
TE Levine Toilolo is 6'8 with 34" arms and great leaping ability -- he's still learning the ropes of how to be a pro, but there's one thing that comes naturally to him -- elevating for a jump ball. Ryan spent years throwing to Tony Gonzalez, so this is no new thing for him, but on this play, Koetter dials up a play-action pass to Toilolo in the back of the end zone.
Cardinals' LB Kevin Minter actually reads the route pretty well and gets into a position to cut it off, but this is like an alley-oop to Dwight Howard over your point guard. There are times where physics just do not work in your favor. Ryan throws the ball on a rope probably about nine feet high -- and just from the perspective of a quarterback, it's a rare opportunity to not have to worry about touch or velocity on a pass like this to the back of the end zone. Zip it in there in a spot that only your guy can get it.
Somewhat relatedly, I liked to see how Koetter used rookie Devonta Freeman in a counterpunch role to what Steven Jackson is called on to provide. The Falcons haven't been a strong running team this season -- 25th in yards per game, 19th in yards per rush, and 27th in attempts -- but they put up 142 yards on the NFL's best, most stingiest rush defense. Part of it was mixing inside power and lead runs with outside pitches, tosses, and sweeps.
The rookie Freeman is elusive in the open field and his talent at making defenders miss is apparent, like when he took a pitch 19 yards after getting the corner. He ran a stretch play to Freeman on the very next snap and got seven more yards.
It's cool to see Koetter design schemes meant to highlight this.
Similarly, the way that Devin Hester has been used in the construct of the offense suits his skillset. The prolific return man is averaging 6.8 yards after the catch per reception according to Pro Football Focus, meaning he's getting the ball in space with room to operate, somewhat like he's on a return.
This play is called a "swap boot." When used in conjunction with a strong run game a a deep play-action passing attack, it can be infuriatingly difficult to stop, particularly when you have a very strong open field runner in Hester.
Soften up the middle
You never want to be one-dimensional in terms of the run vs. the pass. The Falcons had their most impressive day on offense against the Cardinals in a large part because they were able to get things done in the ground game. Jackson ran like a man possessed, racking up 101 yards on 18 carries. Keep in mind, the Cardinals hadn't allowed any player to rush for 100+ yards going back to Week 6 of last season prior to this game. That's pretty insane, actually.
If Atlanta is going to threaten for the playoffs in the NFC South, a balanced offensive attack will help immensely. Not only does it augment your play-pass game, it burns time off the clock and keeps your crappy (sorry) defense off the field.
Tailor your schemes to exploit specific teams
The mark of a good playcaller is the ability to design schemes that beat propensities shown by an opponent. The Cardinals are probably one of the hardest teams to game-plan for because of the multitudes of things they do on defense, whether it's man defense, zone, or all out blitzes, but Koetter seemed to have an answer for Arizona's multiple defense.
One thing he employed on several occasions was the "pick" play. Hey look, it's not just Denver that does this.
Using your entire complement of weapons within the construct of your offense can be devastatingly demoralizing to a defense. Sick and tired of getting beat deep by Jones? Back your defense up, double team him. Get beat on the other side by Harry Douglas. Sick of getting run on by Jackson? Inch up closer to the line, overplay the run ... and get beat by Douglas. That damn swap boot play again!
Bottom line: Nobody is crowning the Falcons at this point in the year, obviously. But the team's game plan and execution on offense against the Cardinals helped allow it to control the ball for 37+ minutes of that game. If Ryan catches fire and starts playing the way we know he can play, Atlanta just becomes an interesting team to watch over the final four games.