Falcons-Jaguars Thursday night preview

Falcons head coach Mike Smith returns to the sideline just days after a health scare

Tonight at 8:20 p.m., the Atlanta Falcons will look to take another step toward a playoff berth when the Jacksonville Jaguars come to town. Just four days after needing a furious rally to knock off the Carolina Panthers on the road, the Falcons need to respond quickly and win again in order to stay in the driver’s seat in the NFC’s race for the postseason.

The Falcons are 8-5 and can clinch their fourth consecutive winning season if they can beat the 4-9 Jags tonight. But Jacksonville isn’t as bad as their record suggests, and their 41-14 beatdown of Tampa Bay last weekend has them riding plenty of momentum going into tonight’s game.

Atlanta coach Mike Smith needed to be taken off the team’s plane on Sunday when he experienced discomfort in his chest, but he was checked out and declared OK to coach this game, so the theme around Flowery Branch has been “business as usual.” Hopefully, the Falcons will be able to focus in tonight after a week of distractions.

The key to keeping the Jaguars from scoring 41 again will be slowing down running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He’s more than just a running back — he can catch, too. Jones-Drew had four touchdowns on Sunday, with two of them being on the ground and two of them coming through the air. Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been decent in his first five regular-season games, completing just over 50 percent of his passes and winning two of those five games. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions, so the Falcons can greatly improve their chances tonight if they get pressure on Gabbert and force him to throw a few picks.

On the other side, the Falcons have generally been pretty good against lower-ranked defenses this season, but they’ll need to work against an underrated Jacksonville defense tonight. The Jags rank fourth in the league in passing defense, allowing just 190.8 yards per game through the air. But they’re allowing over 100 rushing yards per game, so if running back Michael Turner can get rolling tonight, the Falcons could open up the passing game as well.

Surely, the Falcons have the advantage tonight. They’re worried about their head coach after the health scare, but the Falcons have a great leader in Smith, while the Jags have interim coach Mel Tucker calling the shots. Matt Ryan should also win the quarterback battle — Gabbert has done well so far, but he still has a long way to go.

Wide receiver Julio Jones could be another X-factor for the Falcons tonight. Coming off a big game where he had two crucial second-half touchdowns, expect Ryan to throw his way early on tonight. Who knows, maybe Jones built a little momentum against Carolina that will continue this evening.

If all goes according to plan, the Falcons will rally around their head coach and earn their ninth win of the season and inch closer to a spot in the playoffs.

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