Tonight, the Atlanta Falcons play host to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The game has a very lack-luster outward appearance, but it's a game that I'll be watching very closely for a lot of reasons.
The Jaguars come into the game at just 4-9, far removed from playoff contention. Despite that fact, they'd love to be the thorn in someone else's side.
The Falcons come into the game with a tenuous lead in the NFC wild-card race. At 8-5, they have a 1 game lead over the pack of teams that are on the outside looking in. But with 3 games left in the season, there's more than enough time to pad that lead or blow it.
The Falcons do seem to have a significant matchup advantage against the Jaguars' defense, which has been severely hurt by injuries in its secondary. The Jaguars are missing their top 3 cornerbacks, and that gives Matt Ryan and company a mouth-watering edge on the outside.
That being the case, the Falcons can't afford to overlook the Jaguars. The Jags will look to control the tempo of the game with Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL's leading rusher. If that goes well for the Jaguars, they can open it up significantly with play-action passes, one of the few areas that Blaine Gabbert has been proficient in.
The key for the Falcons in tonight's game is to play within themselves and in the moment. The Jaguars have kept nearly every game this season within a score or two, and there's no reason to believe they can't do it again. The Falcons need to play a full 60 minutes of football. Shutting down Maurice Jones-Drew will likely be their primary objective.
Despite all of the matchup edges the Falcons have when their offense is on the field, they have to account for turnovers. The Jaguars were dominated in the 1st quarter last week, but they forced the Buccaneers into turnover after turnover which led to a blowout win for the Jaguars. Their confidence could be their biggest asset against the Falcons, and Mike Smith isn't likely to be thinking beyond tonight's game.
We often say in sports that the most dangerous teams have little or nothing to play for. At 4-9, the Jaguars can't make the playoffs, they can't get to a .500 record, but their coach is in the midst of an audition to become the Jaguars head coach moving forward. The Jaguars are still playing for pride, and they'd love to see their guy, Maurice Jones-Drew, claim the regular season rushing title. While the Jaguars don't have huge goals to play for, they're not dead in the water, and yes, they can be very dangerous. Ask the Ravens if the Jaguars are a formidable opponent. My guess is they'd say yes.
Ultimately, this game is about the Atlanta Falcons. It's all on them tonight. Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons will determine the winner of the game. They have a better team than the Jaguars, and if they play at their level, the Jaguars can only hope to keep the game close. If, however, the Falcons have overlooked this game or just haven't prepared well enough, they'll find themselves marred in the middle of the wild-card pack in the NFC. That's a place they'd rather avoid.
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