The last time the Detroit Lions won two consecutive games, it happened in Atlanta. That was Week 7 of the 2020 season.
It’s been a long time since then, and with major changes for both teams. The 6-8 Falcons are something of an enigma, winning and losing off the national scene with a new coach/GM combination.
To help get more intel on the new-look Falcons, I turned to old friend (and one-time Lions Wire contributor) Matt Urban, who is the managing editor for Falcons Wire. Urban was kind enough to help preview the matchup for Week 16.
Just looking at the stats, the Falcons still appear to pass the ball pretty well but struggle at pretty much everything else. How accurate is that impression?
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It’s fairly accurate, but to say the Falcons do anything well is a bit of a stretch. In the past, the strength of this team has been the passing game, but with Julio Jones in Tennessee and Calvin Ridley still on the NFI list, moving the ball with any consistency has been a challenge.
Surprisingly, the running game has improved, even if the numbers don’t quite show it. Arthur Smith came in with a vision to make this a more physical team up front and despite some growing pains, it’s clear his commitment to the run is paying off. The defense has forced Atlanta to abandon the ground game after the first half on multiple occasions. The offensive line, particularly the interior, has struggled with pressure and Matt Ryan has taken a beating.
A.J. Terrell has been outstanding. Just how good has the second-year CB been in coverage?
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Terrell is a great example of how good cornerback play tends to go unnoticed in the NFL. This season, he’s given up 150 yards on just 23 catches, while holding receivers to a catch rate of under 45 percent. He also has two interceptions and 14 passes defended. Atlanta had two players selected to the Pro Bowl, but Terrell wasn’t one of them.
One thing people use against Terrell is that he stays on one side of the field and doesn’t travel with the opposing team’s top wideout. But that’s really about the Falcons defense and not a knock on his skill set. The former first-round pick was considered one of the worst picks of the first round in 2020, but now he’s arguably the best corner to come out of that draft class.
What’s the early verdict on rookie TE Kyle Pitts?
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Lions fans know as well as anyone that there are no sure things when it comes to drafting a tight end in the first round. Pitts has mostly been as advertised, which says a lot for a guy that scouts described as a unicorn with Hall of Fame potential. After 13 games, Pitts has 58 catches for 847 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Obviously, Pitts is more Eric Ebron than T.J. Hockenson in terms of being a pass-catching weapon that’s simply labeled as a tight end. However, Pitts is bigger, stronger, faster, with better hands and a better head on his shoulders than Ebron. His future is very bright and I expect him to be heavily involved on Sunday.
Is there any matchup with the Lions where Detroit should have a real advantage?
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This is a tough one because if the Lions don’t have Jared Goff, they won’t be able to attack a subpar Falcons secondary. We talked about how good Terrell has been, but the rest of the unit is well below average. If I’m Detroit, I pound the rock, control the clock and keep Matt Ryan off the field.
The Lions offense should match up pretty well against the Falcons front seven, and if former Georgia star RB D’Andre Swift is healthy, I’d let him run the team to victory. Falcons DC Dean Pees’ defense has a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, which can be effective but also makes it harder for Ryan and the offense to find any rhythm.
The Falcons have a rookie coach in Arthur Smith and a 6-8 record. How is that being received by the fans?
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Smith is considerably less entertaining than Dan Campbell and fans seem to be split right down the middle. Despite a talent level that’s roughly on par with the Lions, except for at quarterback, Atlanta somehow has six wins with a point differential worse than Detroit (-126).
Dan Quinn was charismatic and extremely likable, but the Falcons underachieved and lost games they should’ve won far too frequently over the previous three seasons. Smith was brought in to toughen this team up and maximize the talent Atlanta does have. In that sense, he’s done exactly what the team hired him for. The offense is still a work in progress, but it’s moving in the right direction.
Who wins and why?
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I think the Falcons win this one simply by being the healthier team on Sunday. Since Atlanta has been up and down all season, it only makes sense that they would bounce back from last week’s 31-13 loss to the 49ers and beat a banged-up, COVID-riddled Lions team in Week 16.
Falcons 23, Lions 20