Falcons wise to reward Mike Smith with an extension, stay the course

I don’t fault anyone who thought the Falcons should hire two new coordinators, set fire to the Georgia Dome carpet and draft seven new defensive backs in April after the Packers torched Atlanta 48-21 in the postseason.

But that would have been an overreaction and after the Falcons went 13-3 this season, there’s no need to panic just because they were humiliated in the playoffs.

Pardon the clichéd expression but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Owner Arthur Blank had a real mess on his hands when Michael Vick was hauled off to prison and Bobby Petrino left in the middle of the night to go call hogs in Arkansas. But he made one really great decision in hiring GM Thomas Dimitroff, who then made one really great decision in hiring Mike Smith as head coach.

Smith, who has guided the Falcons to a 33-15 record in three years as head coach, was just given a well-deserved three-year contract extension. Don’t be surprised if Dimitroff were given a new deal as well, which would be smart on Blank’s part. This is a team that needs to stay the course.

The Falcons’ biggest goal is shared by all 32 teams: Win a Super Bowl. But while they want to emulate the success that the Steelers and Packers have had this season, they can’t worry about trying to model themselves after either team. The Steelers have had great defenses for decades and Ted Thompson spent years building the roster that the Packers will feature this Sunday in Arlington. Just because the Falcons aren’t in the position that Green Bay is right now doesn’t mean they need to start over.

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Three ways to fix the Patriots and Falcons

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick directs his team against the New York Jets during the third quarter of their AFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Foxborough, January 16, 2011. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

It turned out to be a disappointing year for the two No. 1 seeds in the NFL playoffs. The Falcons were completely overmatched by a much better Packers team on Saturday night, while the Jets outplayed the Patriots on New England’s home field on Sunday.

But these two teams did a lot of good things this season, which is why they combined to win 27 games and earn the top seeds in their respective conferences. All is not lost for either of them, but the Packers and Jets proved that both Atlanta and New England must improve this offseason.

While there are more changes that certainly need to be made for both teams, below are three ways to fix the Falcons and Patriots.

1. Add more pass-rushers.
Add more pass-rushers. Wow, thanks, Anthony. Add pass-rushers? Sure thing. I’ll just hop on down to Target and pick some up. Are they still down aisle three?

I know, pass-rushers don’t fall off trees and they need time to develop. But the Patriots’ biggest concern coming into the season was their inability to rush the QB. Their lack of a pass rush wasn’t the only reason they lost on Sunday, but teams won’t win many games when they can’t get to the quarterback. They didn’t sack Mark Sanchez once and that, in part, led to him throwing three touchdown passes. If Sanchez was able to do what he did last weekend, what do you think Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler or worse yet, Aaron Rodgers would have done to the Pats had they advanced?

As for the Falcons, John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux turned in great seasons but Kroy Biermann faded after having some early-season success. Abraham isn’t getting any younger and while Atlanta’s coaching staff has done a nice job keeping him fresh and healthy throughout the past three seasons, the Falcons need another bona fide edge rusher. The development of rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon should help, as should a fully healthy Peria Jerry. Backup DE Lawrence Sidbury has a ton of raw talent as well, but GM Thomas Dimitroff must add to his defensive line this offseason, whether that comes via the draft or free agency.

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Saints’ defense comes alive, shuts down Falcons

Here are five quick-hit thoughts on the Saints’ 17-14 win over the Falcons on Monday Night Football.

1. Gregg Williams’ defense steps up big-time.
On a night when the offense largely sputtered, Williams’ defense stepped up and won a game for the Saints. Outside of one 27-yard run by Michael Turner in the first half, the run defense was outstanding. This was a unit that has largely been gashed on the ground, which includes giving up over 100 yards last week to Ray Rice. Jonathan Vilma and Co. didn’t do anything special Monday night to shut down a potent Falcons’ rushing attack. They simply filled gaps, won in the trenches and got pressure up field. They dared the Falcons to beat them with the pass and while Matt Ryan was able to hit a few plays to Michael Jenkins throughout the game, this contest was largely won on the strength of New Orleans’ run defense (something that has often cost the Saints games this season).

2. The Falcons offense owes its defense an apology.
The reason I mentioned the Saints’ defensive effort first was because I didn’t want to take anything away from their effort. And I still don’t. That said, what a putrid effort by Mike Mularkey’s offense. They got zero push up front in the running game, center Todd McClure cost his team seven points with one of the worst snaps you’ll ever see and Turner put the ball on the ground at the goal line when the Falcons had seized momentum. And this came on a night when Atlanta’s defense held one of the most explosive offenses in the league to just 17 points. The effort that Jonathan Babineaux and John Abraham gave up front along the defensive line was outstanding. Yes, they missed Drew Brees on a handful of plays but they largely dominated the Saints’ offense with their aggressive play. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder deserves high praise for putting together a game plan that should have won the Falcons the game. How frustrating.

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Falcons’ Gonzalez to play in 2010

The Falcons’ official website confirmed on Wednesday that Tony Gonzalez will be back in 2010, which is obviously good news for Atlanta. Gonzo caught 83 passes for 867 yards and six touchdowns in the Falcons’ run-heavy offense this season, proving that the 34-year-old can still play at an elite level.

Atlanta traded a second round pick in this year’s draft to acquire Gonzalez from Kansas City last offseason. He’s under contract for the next two seasons but I imagine that the veteran is taking things year by year now. The Falcons would love for him to finish out the remainder of his contract in Atlanta, but who knows what his decision will be after next season.

Due to injuries to Michael Turner and Matt Ryan, the Falcons’ offense wasn’t as explosive as many thought it would be entering the season. Turner also got off to a slow start, forcing offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to rely more on the passing game instead of beating teams with a balanced approach. That was fine until Ryan started to struggle, then inconsistency became a huge problem for Atlanta. The offense also had to deal with injuries to the receiving corps, as Roddy White was hobbled all season (although he never missed a game) and promising youngster Harry Douglas suffered a knee injury in training camp and never played a snap.

Now that Gonzalez is committed to 2010 and assuming Ryan, Turner, White and Douglas can return to full health, things once again look promising for the Falcons’ offense. Now GM Thomas Dimitroff must concentrate on adding more talent to a young defensive squad so Atlanta can challenge for a playoff spot again next season.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

NFL Divisional Round Preview

Before I get to my Divisional Round Preview, I’d like to send all of the losers from Wild Card Weekend off the only way I know how: By jabbing them one final time.

Atlanta Falcons: Hey Mike Smith and Mike Mularkey, his name is Jerious Norwood. He’s #32 and he’s one of the best playmakers on your offense. Might want to think about using him more the next time an opposing defense figures out how to shut down Michael Turner.

Indianapolis Colts: Seven trips to the postseason in the last seven years and you only manage one Super Bowl appearance with a three-time MVP at quarterback? Dear Barbara…

Miami Dolphins: Chad, I love you man and I love your story this season. But you can’t force passes down field into double coverage and expect good things. You should have kept doing what you did all season and what you did in your first possession of the game – hit the high-percentage passes and let your receivers get the yardage.

Minnesota Vikings: Did anyone else scratch their head when Brad Childress declined a holding penalty on third down early in the first quarter that would have moved the Eagles on the edge of field goal range? Instead, it brought up forth down and David Akers drilled a 43-yarder to give Philly a 3-0 lead. Childress basically said, “I’m not sure if my defense can hold the Eagles on 3rd and 14 – better give up the field goal so we don’t give up a potential touchdown instead.” You never give your opponents points in the playoffs. Never. Not even a field goal. Force them back, force them to make a play and force them to earn the points.

Myself: I went 1-3 with my Wild Card Predictions last week. Seriously? You went with the Colts in the playoffs? A rookie in Matt Ryan? The Vikings over everyone’s sleeper team in the Eagles? You’re a freaking bum. (Ironically I went 3-1 in a family football pool because I came to my senses and picked San Diego and Philly.)

Moving on…

Chris JohnsonBaltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (13-3)
Saturday, January 10, 4:30PM ET
Opening Odds: Titans –3
Over/Under: 34.5
Game Outlook:
No disrespect to the Giants and Eagles or any other team playing this weekend, but this is easily the best matchup on the divisional playoff schedule. Did you see what Ed Reed and the Ravens did to Chad Pennington and the Dolphins last week? They held them to only 276 total yards, forced five turnovers and surrendered only 52 rushing yards. And although they used a lot of gadget formations throughout the season, it’s not like Miami’s offense was a dud this year. Granted, the Titans have the seventh best rushing attack in the league and rookie Chris Johnson brings an added dimension to the field, but Mike Heimerdinger has his hands full this week trying to come up with a game plan to move the ball against a Baltimore defense allowing just over 15 points a game this season. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how rookie quarterback Joe Flacco does against the seventh best defense in the NFL. Flacco passed with flying colors last week while playing mistake-free and running for the game-clinching score in the fourth quarter. But he’ll have to do a hell of a lot more than complete 9 of 23 passes for 135 yards against a Tennessee defense that could have DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch back on their defensive line. If both players are in the lineup Saturday, Flacco is going to feel the heat up the middle and from the edges so he better get rid of the ball in a timely manner. Overall, this is the best defensive matchup of the year and this game will probably come down to who doesn’t turn the ball over.
X-Factor: Chris Johnson, Titans RB
The only time the Dolphins found success last week was when they used the Ravens’ aggressive style against them and slipped backs out in the flats. Pennington was able to hit Patrick Cobbs and company for seven to 10 yard gains and the Titans could employ the same method. Johnson is a homerun threat and more than capable of taking one to the house every play. Tennessee has to get the ball in this kid’s hands and force the Ravens to miss tackles in the open field, which they have the penchant for doing at times.
Prediction: Titans 16, Ravens 13.
I’m not going to bite on this potential upset. The Ravens’ defense is absolutely nasty, but Flacco worries me against a ball-hawking Tennessee secondary and I think the Titans are going to shut down Baltimore’s running game. This game comes down to which team makes fewer mistakes and I’ll take a veteran in Kerry Collins over the rook Flacco. (Word to the wise though, Kerry – stay away from Ed Reed’s side if you can.)

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