The Atlanta Falcons know they have a chance to mirror last season's finish and put themselves in good playoff position by completing a four-game winning streak to end the regular season.
They also realize there are some issues to clean up in all three phases before any talk of a postseason run.
A win in New Orleans this Sunday clinches a playoff spot for the 9-5 Falcons, while a pair of wins over the Saints and Carolina Panthers in the regular-season finale would earn them the NFC South title.
"The division [title] is big," cornerback Desmond Trufant said, "but we just have to handle the Saints and worry about that the last week."
Here are five things the Falcons need to resolve to achieve what's still in front of them:
DON'T NEGLECT JULIO: Everyone knows Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones, at times, is going to draw added coverage. But as dynamic as Jones is, there will be opportunities regardless to get him the ball. Seeing Jones go without a catch in the second half of Monday night's game against the Buccaneers was somewhat surprising, although the Falcons ran the ball effectively with a season-high 201 yards. The Matt Ryan-to-Jones connection and the deep-ball success has been and will remain critical for the Falcons. "We’ll certainly analyze it, and you know why, just because he’s such a factor in what we do and how we want to play," coach Dan Quinn said of Jones' targets and production. "We’re always going to take our shots to him and always get our targets there. ... For sure he’s a factor in all that we do and definitely keep wanting to assess that to make sure not only is he at his best, but that makes us at our best."
STICK TO THE RUN: Speaking of the Falcons' season-high 201 rushing yards -- thanks, in large part, to Devonta Freeman's season-high 126 ground yards -- the Falcons and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian know sticking to the run game is a must. How critical? Well, the Falcons are 7-1 in games in which they rush for 132 or more yards. Quinn said he always seeks in the high 20s in carries per game and the Falcons actually are 5-0 when they have 30 or more rushing attempts. When Tevin Coleman returns from a concussion, the Falcons will be that much more potent running the ball, although give third running back Terron Ward plenty of credit for running hard and being effective when asked to step into the backup role.
CLEAN UP TACKLING: Believe it or not, the Falcons had just five missed tackles in the win over the Buccaneers. It probably would have been double that amount had the officials not ruled Bucs running back Charles Sims down by Deion Jones' contact when Sims appeared to take a pass and dash for 32 yards. At this point of the season, the Falcons can't afford any double-digit missed-tackle games. They'll face the challenge Sunday of having to contend with the Saints' dynamic running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram and Drew Brees' ability to find them in the screen games Then, the Falcons know they'll have to bring Cam Newton to the ground in the finale, while Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart showed a couple weeks ago against the Vikings he can still get it done. Not to mention the elusiveness of rookie Christian McCaffrey. And that tackling needs to spill over to special teams, where the Falcons need to cover much better and bring returners to the ground.
AVOID UNTIMELY PENALTIES: Once again in the last game, the Falcons had one of those penalties that wiped away a turnover. This time, cornerback Robert Alford was whistled for defensive holding Monday night on a play when free safety Ricardo Allen picked off Jameis Winston. That's happened way too many times this season. "We’ve lost, I think, five or six on some fouls, and I think that would make a real difference where we’ve lost some interceptions," Quinn said. "Those six interceptions, that’s a big difference, man, in terms of going from 11 takeaways up to 17 or however many it is into that spot, that’s a big difference." The Falcons are minus-4 in the turnover ratio, which ranks tied for 22nd in the league.
STAY HEALTHY: Coleman's concussion and left guard Andy Levitre's left triceps injury are the biggest injury concerns right now. Quinn told 92.9 The Game radio on Wednesday that Coleman remains in the concussion protocol and that Levitre will start to work some into practice. Levitre wore a rather large brace on his arm when did some light running prior to Monday night's game. It would be ideal for the Falcons to go into the playoffs without any lingering injuries, of course.