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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 8:00 AM

The Atlanta Falcons enter Saturday Night’s road game against the Detroit Lions on top of the world. They just crushed the New York Giants 34-0 in a statement game. And, they’re on the verge of locking down the #1 seed in the NFC playoff brackets. Sports bettors must spend the next couple of weeks trying to determine of the Falcons are done being a pretender…and are finally a legitimate contender to win the NFC and the Super Bowl.

Before we run our indicator stats for Saturday Night’s nationally televised game on ESPN, let’s take a brief look at the readiness question for Atlanta. Unfortunately, it’s destined to be brief! Here’s how Atlanta has performed this year vs. NFL teams who are contending for playoff spots.

ATLANTA VS. PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Atlanta (-3) vs. Denver 27-21

Atlanta (-3) at Washington 24-17

Atlanta (-3) vs. Dallas 19-13

Atlanta (-1) vs. NY Giants 34-0

Yes, it’s a 4-0 sweep straight up and against the spread, which is very good news. But, that’s not exactly a murderer’s row. Out of Washington, Dallas, and the NY Giants…it’s possible that only ONE of those teams will reach the postseason. Plus, Atlanta got to play Washington and Denver early in the campaign before they really found their form.

It’s conceivable that Atlanta will enter the postseason having only played TWO games against teams who reached the playoffs! Two out of 16 games! They won’t have played San Francisco, or Seattle, or Green Bay, or Chicago from the NFC. Their foray into the AFC was catching Denver early then beating up on other AFC West weaklings.

Yes, blasting the Giants last week was a very good sign. It came late in the season against a divisional leader who clearly needed to win. But, there’s no way one could suggest that the Falcons will be “battle tested” heading into the postseason. This may still be the annual “pretender” team from past seasons…who once again lucked into a very easy schedule before running into tough opposition in January.

Let’s see what our indicator stats suggest about that, as we consider the right way to play Saturday Night’s game in Detroit…

 

ATLANTA FALCONS at DETROIT LIONS (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN)

Las Vegas Spread: Atlanta by 3.5, total of 50.5

The market says Atlanta is about 6.5 to 7 points better than Detroit on a neutral field given this motivation boost of fighting for the #1 seed. Green Bay was only laying that much in a recent home game against the Lions. So, at least we know the market doesn’t see Atlanta as being outmatched by Green Bay.

WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)

Atlanta: 12-2 (25th ranked schedule)

Detroit: 4-10 (6th ranked schedule)

You longtime readers of the NOTEBOOK know that we place a lot of weight on strength of schedule during the playoffs. It’s amazing how consistently the battle tested teams do well in January, while those who coasted against soft schedules underachieve market expectations when they step up in class. Right now, that ranking of 25th for Atlanta is a red flag warning. They’d probably be more like 10-4 against a real schedule…which is still very respectable but not scary. Note that San Francisco and Seattle have 10 wins while playing tough schedules. We’d better not lose sight of Detroit here! The Lions are better than their record, and really aren’t that far removed from last year’s playoff squad. A few plays here or there on special teams and with Matthew Stafford passes…and we’re looking at a Wildcard threat.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

Atlanta: +9

Detroit: -9

Atlanta has done well in the risk/reward area, which is important heading into the playoffs. Of course, they’ve had a soft schedule. And, when facing the playoff caliber defense of Arizona (a bad team with a great defense), they did have bad turnover issues. Detroit’s high risk/high reward approach has been biting them in the butt this season. That creates wide-open possibilities Saturday Night. Detroit can win outright if they play clean. Detroit can watch the game get away from them quickly (which happened when they played Arizona last week) with too many miscues.

OFFENSIVE STATS

Atlanta: 377.4 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

Detroit: 406.5 yards-per-game on 5.6 yards-per-play

Both teams know how to move the ball. Atlanta’s been doing a better job of making that happen without turnovers. Detroit would be LETHAL if they could ever figure out how to erase Stafford’s mistakes. Dallas fans have been saying the same thing about Tony Romo. San Diego fans will tell you about Philip Rivers. Stafford’s early career tendencies are putting him in frustrating company unfortunately.

DEFENSIVE STATS

Atlanta: 354.4 yards-per-game on 5.9 yards-per-play

Detroit: 337.5 yards-per-game on 5.4 yards-per-play

Big edges here for the Lions, because their half a yard-per-play better and about 20 yards per game better while facing a MUCH tougher schedule. If you believe that “defense wins championships,” then you have to admit that Atlanta really isn’t playing at a championship level. They have unimpressive defensive numbers while facing an easy schedule. That said, they did shout out Eli Manning and the Giants last week! They’d better maintain that level of intensity, or the Lions offense will pop them for a big number.

LAST WEEK’S BOXSCORES

ATLANTA 34, NY GIANTS 0

Total Yardage: NY Giants 256, Atlanta 394

Rushing Yards: NY Giants 97, Atlanta 129

Passing Stats: NY Giants 14-26-2-159, Atlanta 23-28-0-265

Turnovers: NY Giants 3, Atlanta 0

Third Downs: NY Giants 40%, Atlanta 69%

Vegas Line: Atlanta by 1, total of 50

Great stuff from the Falcons. Sure, they’re not capable of winning by that kind of score on command. They won every stat category handily though. They didn’t need the turnover boost to win easily. This was a peak performance followed by running out the clock with a lead. Skeptics have no legs to stand on with this particular outing. This WAS championship caliber football. Can they do that three straight games in January?

ARIZONA 38, DETROIT 10

Total Yardage: Detroit 312, Arizona 196

Rushing Yards: Detroit 84, Arizona 99

Passing Stats: Detroit 25-40-3-228, Arizona 14-21-1-97

Turnovers: Detroit 4, Arizona 1

Third Downs: Detroit 33%, Arizona 17%

Vegas Line: Detroit by 6, total of 43

What a debacle. Detroit’s defense utterly shut down Arizona, but there were 38 points on the board anyway because Stafford kept setting up touchdowns for the wrong team. If you believe that turnovers are “luck” or “random,” then you’re expecting the Lions to bounce back strong this week…and then take the NFL by storm next year. If you can recognize a mistake-prone quarterback when you see one, it’s a lot harder to be optimistic.

 

BEST EXPECTATION

This game could easily blow up in either direction. If Atlanta is flat off their big win, and Detroit hasn’t thrown in the towel on their season…then the Lions could use this national TV opportunity to remind the league that they still matter. On the other hand, last week’s Falcons would have crushed last week’s Lions given the different execution levels. THAT Atlanta team should be favored by 7-10 over a mistake-prone group that may be imploding under their volatile head coach….and could win by 17-21 if they get a bunch of easy points.

JIM HURLEY has been working closely with his on-site sources to get a good read on each team. He expects a cover of at least a touchdown based on what he’s learned. And, he’ll have that winner for you long before kickoff right here at the website. Don’t forget that there are THREE football games on Saturday with the New Orleans and Las Vegas bowls joining Falcons/Lions on the TV schedule. Take care of business EARLY so you get full value on the day.

If you have any questions about NETWORK service, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Representatives will be standing by all weekend to talk about your “end of year” options as well as football/basketball combination packages.

Back with you Sunday to run the numbers for NBC’s national telecast of San Francisco-Seattle that will loom so large over the NFC brackets. There are several big games this weekend. Don’t you dare make a move until you hear what JIM HURLEY HAS TO SAY!


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