By Adesina O. Koiki
It has been a rollercoaster 2017 season for the defending NFC Champions, and it is no surprise that another thriller awaits the Atlanta Falcons in their regular-season finale late Sunday afternoon.
Atlanta’s hopes of making the NFL Playoffs for a second consecutive season hinge on defeating the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Week 17, as a win will guarantee a place in the postseason. A loss, coupled with a Seattle Seahawks win at home against the Arizona Cardinals, will eliminate the Falcons from postseason contention.
Even with the do-or-die nature to the game against the 11-4 Panthers, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is embracing the opportunity for his team to play its way into the playoffs.
“I guess I get as excited because as a coach when you get in this environment, it’s as much fun as you can imagine,” said Quinn on Thursday. It’s for [the playoffs]. We get to control our own spot. I guess I wouldn’t say more excitement, but probably a little more excitement going into it and enjoying the buildup. ”
What might make the job tougher for the Falcons on Sunday is the health of Julio Jones, who has been dealing with both thumb and ankle injuries. Before last week’s loss to the New Orleans Saints, Jones went into the locker room to get his left thumb taped up, though he played in the contest and made seven catches for 149 yards.
Even with those knocks preventing Jones from operating at his best, Quinn does not seem too concerned about the five-time Pro Bowl receiver answering the bell when Sunday arrives.
“Well you guys have covered him long enough to know that some of the injuries he has, he’s a fast healer and his toughness is legitimately on point,” said Quinn. “He’s a guy who knows how to play with injury, so as far as the thumb and dealing with that, the work that he goes through to get ready, he tests whether ‘I got an ankle, I’ve got to test it. I’ve got a hamstring. I’ve got to go test it.’ It’s just like that with his thumb. ‘I’ve got to test it.’ I thought he responded terrifically with the thumb. The one with his ankle is no setback from previous, so he’ll get a good bit of work in [Thursday].”
Jones is just one of a few players on the offensive side of the ball that is banged up, as center Alex Mack did not practice on Thursday due to a calf injury while guard Andy Levitre was limited in practice over the last two days with a triceps injury. The injuries along the offensive line might impact the performance of the Falcons running game, as running back Devonta Freeman has played well in the month of December, rushing for 327 yards and averaging 4.7 yards per carry in the last four games.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a cause for concern because they all are able to practice and participate,” Quinn said about the injuries along the offensive line. “I think when you get down, there are certain weeks sometimes we’re more banged up than another. That position, I’d say they’re a pretty tough crew, and they know what’s at stake. They’ll be ready to rock.”
Atlanta is looking to avenge a 20-17 loss to the Panthers in Week 8 in Charlotte, a game in which the Panthers rushed for 201 yards. The Panthers, unlike the Falcons, have a chance to win the NFC South, if they win in Atlanta and the New Orleans Saints lose in Tampa Bay.
While the division title is no longer in play, Quinn likes the position the Falcons are in, having to win to get into the postseason.
“Well, I’m very confident,” said Quinn. “For us to go [to the playoffs], we’ve got to own this week. But I do know from this group all the things that make us unique, and playmakers on all three phases, how to feature the guys. We’ve got a lot of confidence as a group because they’ve worked hard to put us in a spot where we don’t have to rely on anybody else, and that’s a good feeling.”