The Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons play this weekend in a game between two first place NFC teams. Of course, you could also look at it as a 9-2 team playing a 4-7 team, but it is a big game for both teams in any case.
As we almost always do with the opposing team's SB Nation site, I got together with Dave Choate of The Falcoholic and exchanged questions.
Here are my questions and his answers.
Jess Root: 4-7, but at the top of the division. What is the feeling over there in Hotlanta? Giddy? Happily unsatisfied? Can you explain what is happening in the division? More importantly, what are the expectations for the team this year and beyond?
Dave Choate: Generally, the feeling ranges between happy unsatisfaction (thanks for that) and outright contempt. Many Falcons fans want to see at least Mike Smith fired, so leading the division is not giving them the warm and fuzzies, to put it mildly.
For folks like me, it's fun to see the team limping along in first place, and I hold out hope that they can actually make the playoffs here. I want to see this team win every week, because the good times can be fleeting.
The division is simply a mix of bad cap situations and injuries coming home to roost (Saints, Panthers), injuries and crappiness mingling (Falcons) and a young, inept team that needs a quarterback and some time to gel (Buccaneers). I think the Falcons will be in the division hunt until the very end, and 2015 will see a new coaching staff, a bit of re-tooling and an eye on 2016 as a return to true contention.
JR: Although it seems the Cardinals and Falcons meet every year, tell us about the team. Where are their strengths and weaknesses?
DC: The strengths are an opportunistic secondary which has come into its own a bit in recent weeks, Matt Ryan when he's on and the team's top receivers. Throw special teams in there, because the return game, punter and kicker are pretty terrific for Atlanta. The weaknesses are myriad from there, and they include the coach's time management, the defense in general, the offensive line and in recent weeks the passing game. This is a pretty mediocre team capable of flashes of better play, but I can't tell you with any confidence that they'll bring back the high-octane passing game or bend-but-don't-break defense that enabled so many wins from 2008-2012.
JR: Matt Ryan's numbers seem pretty in line with his career. Is there any question as to what type of quarterback he is at this point? Where do you rank him among other QBs in the league?
DC: I don't think there is. He's never going to be on the level of a Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, in all likelihood, but he's very good. Right now I'd put him at #7 or #8 among NFL quarterbacks, with a chance to go a little higher or a little lower. He's a known, excellent quantity who has had a couple of bad weeks, and unfortunately the fact that he'll never be a top three guy makes some fans want to get rid of him.
His track record against the Cardinals aside, he's an excellent fit for this team, and he'll be here a long while yet.
JR: What are the most favorable matchups the Falcons have with Arizona and what are the least favorable matchups?
DC: Easily the most favorable matchup in my mind is against Drew Stanton. The Falcons don't have a great pass rush, but they can regularly bring at least light pressure, and their secondary has been on a huge intercepting spree. Stanton strikes me as a gambler, and the Falcons have been punishing teams for that.
On the other side of the coin, that hyper-aggressive defense will be trouble for Atlanta's passing game and pass protection. I fear Ryan's going to make some mistakes under pressure, that the line won't be able to get much going on the ground and the defense is going to have to put the Falcons in a position to win, which is concerning given the state of said defense.
JR: Who are the players Cardinals fans might not expect to see make important contributions?
DC:You might not know a ton about Kemal Ishmael, but I expect he'll be a factor even with starting strong safety William Moore returning. Ishmael has four interceptions on the season and is a big hitter in run support, and I expect to see him get 30 snaps or so as a third safety.
On offense, look for Devonta Freeman. Steven Jackson is a plodding power back at this stage, but Freeman is an able pass catcher with another gear out of the backfield, and I'm hoping he'll get more carries.
Prediction? Falcons 21-Cardinals 17
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