DETROIT — The Atlanta Falcons have proven they’re good enough to dominate a division leader.
Atlanta is coming off a 34-0 victory over New York Giants, putting the NFC South champions within a win of earning home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
The Falcons, though, showed the previous week just how vulnerable they can be against one of the NFC’s worst teams, losing by double digits to the Carolina Panthers.
“You can’t just show up if you’re going to beat a team,” Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “Maybe we learned that at Carolina. Maybe that loss was something good for us.”
The Falcons (12-2) will find out soon if they learned their lesson.
It would be easy to overlook the Detroit Lions (4-10) because they have lost six in a row and were bad enough to lose to Arizona last week 38-10, allowing the Cardinals to end a nine-game slide.
Matt Ryan said the Falcons have too much at stake for a letdown.
“What’s still in front of us in terms of the playoff picture and those kind of things, I think is all the motivation we need,” Ryan said. “It’s not something I worry about.”
Atlanta will have some worries on defense tonight in Detroit. A pair of players that played college ball in the Peach State, receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford, are the only sources of pride for the Lions and causes of concern for opponents.
Johnson, the first player in league history with 1,600-plus yards receiving in two straight seasons, has matched a league record with 100 yards receiving in seven consecutive games. He’s 182 yards through the air from breaking Jerry Rice’s single-season NFL mark.
Rice had 1,848 yards receiving with the San Francisco 49ers in 1995 and Johnson is a couple of his average games away from breaking the 1,900-yard mark.
If the Falcons let targets other than Johnson make a lot of plays, it would be more embarrassing than losing to Carolina.
Detroit has been without its second, third, and fourth receivers and No. 1 running back, and probably will be without top tight end Brandon Pettigrew against Atlanta because of injuries.
Stafford, like the team he leads, has taken a step back this season a year after spectacular results led to the Lions winning 10 games and ending an 11-year postseason drought.
But the former Georgia star throws so often – putting him on pace to break Drew Bledsoe’s single-season record for attempts – and sometimes well enough to rank fourth in the league with 4,252 yards, and to give Johnson a shot to surpass a revered NFL record.
“Anytime I get a chance to, I’m going to try to give him a chance,” Stafford said. “That’s when our offense is at its best.”
Ryan, meanwhile, might have a trio of targets with 1,000-plus yards receiving by the end of the regular season.
Roddy White has already passed the mark for a sixth straight season, and second-year pro Julio Jones has done it. Star tight end Tony Gonzalez is 120 yards away from his first season with 1,000 yards receiving since 2008, his last year with the Kansas City Chiefs. More importantly, they’ve combined for 22 touchdowns through the air.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that deserve opportunities to touch the football on our offense,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “It gives our offensive coordinator and our quarterback a lot of options when we’re putting our game plan together during the week.”
Part of the plan for the Falcons in a prime-time matchup in the Motor City is to take a struggling opponent more seriously than they did a couple weeks ago against the Panthers.
“I certainly hope we approach it differently,” Smith said. “I believe that we will. This is a very good football team. Their record is not indicative of the type of team they are. Eight of their 10 losses have been by less than one score, so they’ve played some very close games.”
The Lions’ last defeat was an exception.
Detroit got routed by the Cardinals, which had lost nine straight, after losing four straight by a TD or less, including an NFL record-tying three games in a row after leading by 10-plus points. A year after playing for postseason positioning in late December, they’re relegated to playing for pride.
“We are playing for each other on national TV with a good chance to show the country what type of team we are,” Detroit tight end Tony Scheffler said. “The season hasn’t gone the way any of us wanted, but to get a showcase game like this against a team fighting for home-field advantage, you couldn’t ask for more.”