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Sports illustrated matchup Falcons vs Cards

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Who Has the Edge At...

Quarterback: Falcons

Warner's gaudy passing stats aside, this is actually a tough call as he and Matt Ryan are actually pretty similar. Both guys lean toward the big plays -- Warner has 31 plays of 25 yards or more; Ryan has 29 -- but maintain solid completion percentages (67.1 for Warner and 61.1 for Ryan). The biggest differences are Warner's proclivity for error -- he's put 11 balls on the turf this year and tossed 14 interceptions -- and Ryan's receiving options, which seem rather limited in comparison.

In a game like this, it comes down to preference: Do you want the big play guy who might lose a few balls in between? Or do you want Ryan, the seemingly safer option? Atlanta has the hotter hand and a standout complimentary running attack, which takes some pressure off of the rookie. I give Ryan the edge.

Running Back: Falcons

As easy a matchup to pick as you'll ever find. The Cardinals have the worst per-rush average in the league and they know it, so they run the ball less often than everyone else.

The Falcons, meanwhile, have two guys, Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood, who each average 4.5 yards per carry or better. Turner, an NFC Pro Bowl reserve in his first year as a starter, has been particularly effective lately. Since Thanksgiving he has a 122-yard per game average and has crossed the goal line four times. Norwood, who had two rushing scores against St. Louis this week, is earning himself money on every touch. He'll be a free agent in 2010 but could draw interest in the trade market this offseason, so he has plenty to play for at this time of year, just like Turner did a year ago for San Diego.

Receivers: Cardinals

Matt Ryan-to-Roddy White may be the connection of the future, but the hottest quarterback-receiver combo of '08 was Warner to whoever was in the vicinity. Warner has an array of diverse options: Larry Fitzgerald, a leaper who'll come down with anything in his general direction; Anquan Boldin, who's built more like a running back; and Steve Breaston, who's got the best jets of the set. All three topped 1,000 receiving yards, making them just the fifth such troika in NFL history.

The options don't end there. Jerheme Urban and rookie Early Doucet have both proven capable options when Warner looks outside of his go-to guys.

Offensive Line: Falcons

The Falcons' unit showed improvement in '08; the Cardinals, not as much. Arizona's mushers aren't called on to do too much run blocking, yet they still find issues with pass protection, as they did on their first drive against Seattle last week, leading to a Warner turnover.

The Cardinals' biggest worry this week should be left tackle Mike Gandy, who's charged with protecting Warner's blind side. Gandy yielded two sacks to Minnesota's Jared Allen three weeks ago and another to Seahawks end Darryl Tapp last week. He'll match up against John Abraham, who had 16.5 sacks in '08, four in his last three games.

Defensive Line: Falcons

Abraham alone should put fear in any opponent, even more so if his end mate, Jamaal Anderson, recovers from an ankle injury to play. Arizona simply doesn't bring much of a sack threat beyond defensive end Bertrand Berry, who leads the team with five. Tackle Darnell Dockett is the one player who could cause Atlanta problems inside.

larry-fitzgerald.jpg Larry Fitzgerald caught 96 passes for 1,431 yards and 12 TDs this season.John W. McDonough/SILinebackers: Push

Keith Brooking won't be much of a factor without the threat of a serious runner coming at him. The Cardinals' Karlos Dansby, on the other hand, may be coming into his element, but he and Chike Okeafor will have their hands full with Turner and Norwood.

Defensive Backs: Falcons

The Cardinals' young unit has allowed more passing touchdowns (36) than anyone else. As an upside, they have the greater potential for a turnaround play, especially when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, an NFC Rookie of the Year Candidate, gets on the field.

Special Teams: Falcons

Falcons are the easy pick based on Norwood's return duties alone. He's thrice topped 140 return yards, including against the Rams last week when he returned five kicks for 192 yards. And he has four returns of 50 yards or longer.

Breaston has big-play potential as the Cardinals' punt returner, but he hasn't taken one more than 25 yards yet this year.

Coaching: Falcons

It took the lowly Seahawks to break the two-week freefall for Ken Whisenhunt's club. More than anyone else he looks like his team doesn't belong in the playoffs.

Atlanta's Mike Smith, on the other hand, has the sort of rookie brazenness that's proven successful for guys like Miami's Tony Sparano this year. Case in point: Trailling St. Louis 14-10 with 16 seconds left in the first half last week, Smith chalked up a set that had Norwood and Ryan in a dual shotgun formation, each with his hands extended to accept the ball -- sort of a double Wild Cat. Norwood took the snap and darted off left tackle for an eight-yard score, crucial points in a 31-27 win.

Why the Falcons Will Win

New England blew the Cardinals out of the water two weeks ago with a steady dose of running up the middle. In that game, Foxboro's slick surface was enough to turn a poor rushing team into a stellar one. The Falcons will follow suit, and they won't need mother nature's help.

Look for Smith to lean even more heavily on the run with hopes of keeping Warner off the field. When the Cardinals offense does line up, the pressure should be coming right up the middle. Atlanta will win if they can create an early turnover or two and spin that position into points.

Why the Cardinals Will Win

Because they don't get any respect -- and who are these Falcons anyway? Warner has the arm and the weapons to rip apart the Falcons' sub-standard secondary and he'll take a few deep shots early to set the tone. Tim Hightower and Edgerrin James have to be spot-on in pass protection help, but Whisenhunt has to be willing to use those two for a few run plays early on, as well; otherwise the Falcons secondary will be playing nickel all day long.

Final Prediction

Falcons in a blowout -- let's say 35-20 -- that only looks close because Arizona can tack on points quickly late. Too late, in this case.

I didn't see a whole lot this week against Seattle to suggest the Cardinals had woken from their year-end slumber. They don't belong here, and the upstart Falcons will prove it.

Email comments to siwriters@simail.com

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i thought it interesting about the Norwood being a FA in 10 and maybe trade bait. It will be an interesting off-season in the run game. Theres no way in **** that the Falcons want to run Turner 370 times again next year--he'll be toast quickly. I still say watch the Falcons grab one of the top runners like Knowshon or Shonn if they drop in the draft and copy the Panther's model of two feature backs.

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i thought it interesting about the Norwood being a FA in 10 and maybe trade bait. It will be an interesting off-season in the run game. Theres no way in **** that the Falcons want to run Turner 370 times again next year--he'll be toast quickly. I still say watch the Falcons grab one of the top runners like Knowshon or Shonn if they drop in the draft and copy the Panther's model of two feature backs.

Why not sign norwood?The chargers wish they had signed turner Im sure.

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Just a thought....

Anybody on the boards thinking about that loss to Denver at home?

I just can't shake it from my thoughts because they were supposed to be soft (showed up that day) and we were predicted to rout them and run all over them. I admit I don't know that much about the Cards D line but everyone seems to thing we're just going to run away with this one but I just can't help but feel antsy because of that Denver game!

I fully expect Arizona to show up on D and play out of their minds. I think we will win but this will not be a rout as the pundits are so quick to say. This is their first home playoff game since the 40's and they will be fired up for sure.

Go Falcons!!!!

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