NFL Preview: Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons

Frank Doyle | Updated Dec 15, 2011

Everyone who wrote off Atlanta at the end of September may need to think again. Frank Doyle previews Jacksonville’s visit to the Georgia Dome tonight.

Atlanta was a popular sports betting dark horse pick for the Super Bowl at the start of the season. Then the Falcons started 2-3, with defeats against the Bears, Bucs and Packers, and it looked like another false dawn in Georgia.

And now, suddenly, here are the Falcons at 8-5, keeping the pressure on the Saints at the top of the NFC South and well in the hunt for the NFC Wild Card.

Tonight Jacksonville travels to Atlanta in what is a must-win game for the Falcons. The Jaguars are feeling good after a 41-14 stomping of the hapless Buccaneers, while Atlanta had to come back from 23-7 down to score 24 unanswered points and beat Carolina 31-23 on Sunday.

Maurice Jones-Drew is the man who made it happen for the Jaguars. Jones-Drew is 208 pounds weight, and 200 of those pounds are heart. He’s been outstanding for the Jaguars – so much so that Jaguar fans, who have to put up with a lot, really don’t like to think of what things would be like if Jones-Drew weren’t there.

Michael Turner is the Falcons’ answer to Jones-Drew. Turner is in third place in the league rushing table (Jones-Drew is first) but he picked up a groin injury on Tuesday and is listed a probable for tonight.

The Falcons don’t rely on Turner as much as the Jaguars rely on Jones-Drew. The Jags have to rely on Jones-Drew, because they don’t have a passing game. The Falcons do – after a fashion.

Matt Ryan has a very good reputation as a passer in the NFL, and has the numbers to back it up. He completes 60% of his passes, and he doesn’t turn it over. That puts him in the top half of the passers in the league.

But when the game is on the line and the team has ninety yards to go, eighty seconds on the clock and no time outs, is it Matt Ryan you send for, or Tim Tebow?

It’s a slightly unfair comparison as the systems Tebow and Ryan operate are so dissimilar, but there is a thing out there about some quarterbacks, like Ryan in Atlanta or Flacco in Baltimore, that there’s just something missing. The X-Factor that makes a quarterback elite, instead of just very, very good.

But whatever doubts exist about Ryan, the Falcons will have too much for the Jaguars tonight. Atlanta must win, while Jacksonville would like to. Jones-Drew needs a monster game to keep Jacksonville in it, but Atlanta has the fourth-best run defense in the country. Atlanta marches on, and then has ten days to prepare for an epic at New Orleans.