It's time for some Monday Night Football on Saturday night, as the Atlanta Falcons, the top birds in the NFC, cruise into town to take on the Detroit Lions. It's time to officially put this particular match up in the category of games that looked better when the schedule came out last spring. The 12-2 Falcons have held up their end of the bargain so far, but after a 38-10 shellacking in the desert, there's questions about whether or not the 4-10 Lions have officially quit.
Still, it's a primetime game in the Motor City prior to the holiday season. For fans desperately looking for one final reason to be fired up, this game presents a nice holiday opportunity. How can Detroit finally break a six game slide? What do the Falcons have to do to extend the Lions' pain? Here's this week's five keys.
1. Matthew Stafford's Competence. Stafford took all the blame (both justly and unjustly) for Sunday's loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Whether or not the entire debacle was the quarterback's fault, he did make two mistakes which directly led to Detroit's loss. Two interceptions returned for touchdowns (part of three on the afternoon) won't win teams games against worse competition let alone the NFC's top team. Knowing this, Stafford will have to be very careful Saturday against a Falcons defense which is very opportunistic. Scott Linehan has to set him up with confidence building short throws early, and Stafford must be in control of his mechanics, especially around the red zone. This week, Stafford cannot make the big mistake against an offense which will certainly make him pay.
2. Atlanta's Ball Security. Matt Ryan is a solid game manager, but as we detailed this week while scouting the Falcons, he tends to toss the pigskin to the opposition as well. The Falcons need to remain in control of the football if they want to survive in a tough road environment. Last year in Detroit, Ryan tossed two interceptions as the Falcons had the only two turnovers of the game. They were lucky to survive that and escape with a win. This time around, they should do a much better job protecting the football
3. Tony Gonzalez. In the interest of watching good football players, Lions' fans should keep close watch of #88 on Saturday night. Despite his age, Gonzalez is still the best goal line threat in the league at tight end, and is capable of taking over a game by himself if Roddy White, Julio Jones and company are in the process of stretching the field. The Lions can't lose track of Gonzalez amongst all the other firepower the Falcons feature. Last season, it was Gonzalez who went off against Detroit for five receptions and 62 yards, and not any of Atlanta's bigger names. This time around, Detroit should key up on him better. If not, it will be yet another long day for the secondary.
4. Detroit's Interest Level. Losing 38-10 to Arizona should be a good indication of where the Lions' heads were last Sunday afternoon. All signs pointed to the team completely giving up, as a lazy effort against a bad team doomed Detroit from the start. This week, are the Lions finally ready to step up and play, putting the mental mistakes behind them? If they're not, this game could get uglier than last week's loss to the Cardinals. Atlanta is firing on all cylinders right now, and will not be a team beating themselves. Detroit will have to step up with some passion, intensity and excitement in order to get their fans fired up and win the game. As team records go, a win over the Falcons would look to be a major upset. Will tends to beat skill when skill isn't motivated. This week more than most, the Lions must be into the game from the first kick on in order to have a shot at winning.
5. The Crowd. Have the Lions' faithful completely mailed it in for 2012, or are they still fired up to try and get their team a win? If the Lions don't execute right away, how long will it take for the boo birds to show up? Should Atlanta open things up a bit, will the people head for the exits? It's the usual crowd watching plan at Ford Field Saturday night. If the Lions are going to win, they need this particular crowd to act as the most impassioned 12th man of the year and get them excited. Crowds were good for Thanksgiving and other big games this year, so what will happen Saturday? Should the Lions win, chances are, you'll be able to credit the people's will just as much as the team's skill.
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