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Falcons' pass defense facing big test

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Dan Parr
Associate editor

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By Dan Parr

The Falcons finished the regular season with a 45-24 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday, putting the final nail in the coffin of the Raheem Morris era in Tampa Bay and clinching the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs. The Falcons, who already had secured a wild-card spot, marched out to a 42-0 lead in the second quarter before being outscored by the Bucs 24-3 the rest of the way. Atlanta suffered a blowout loss to the Saints in its previous game, but the offense was particularly impressive as the club notched its 10th win of the season, against the Bucs.

"We wanted to come out and set the tempo with our execution, and I was very pleased with the way that our guys played, especially there in the first half," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "We did some things that we needed to do — we had to get it fixed from our previous game — and I'm really proud of the way our guys bounced back."

Atlanta will travel to face the NFC East-champion Giants in the wild-card round of the postseason. These two teams have not met since the 2009 season, when Eli Manning threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 Giants victory at the Meadowlands.

The Falcons won five of their final seven games this season but fell to the only two playoff teams they faced in the second half of the season — the Saints and Texans. The club is still looking for its first postseason win under Smith, who will lead his team to the playoffs for the third time since he was hired four seasons ago.

The PFW spin

One of the potential problem areas for the Falcons is their pass defense. Bucs QB Josh Freeman, who struggled mightily this season, dropped back to pass 50 times Sunday, and he was sacked only twice. He had a completion percentage of 68.9 (31-of-45), and Freeman completed two passes longer than 30 yards — he completed more than 68 percent of his passes in only five other games this season.

The Falcons also picked off Freeman three times Sunday and recovered his lone fumble, but Atlanta is going to face a much sharper quarterback when the defense lines up across from Manning, who lit up the Cowboys for 346 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions Sunday night. He has one of the league's better WR tandems in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, and the Falcons' secondary will be in for a long afternoon if it doesn't get a lot of help from the front four in the form of a highly disruptive pass rush on Manning.

The Packers exposed weaknesses in the Falcons' secondary when the two teams met in last season's playoffs, a 48-21 Green Bay victory in the divisional round. The Giants, while not as high-powered as the Packers, have the ability to carve up a secondary, too.

Atlanta's defense would get a boost from the return of its best corner, Brent Grimes, who has missed four of the past five games since undergoing knee surgery. He played in Week 16 vs. the Saints, and the Falcons considered playing him vs. the Bucs before deciding it was best to sit him.

The Falcons spent big money to sign CB Dunta Robinson before last season, but he hasn't played up to expectations. Grimes is headed for unrestricted free agency in the offseason. The team needs those players to step up when it counts most.

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