Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta (turf, indoors)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Spread: Falcons by 9.5
Records: Cardinals (Overall: 4-5, NFC West: 1-2); Falcons (Overall: 8-1, NFC South: 1-1)
Past results: Two most recent meetings -- Sept. 19, 2010: Falcons 41, Cardinals 7; Jan. 3, 2008: Cardinals 30, Falcons 24, (wild card round playoffs). Series record: Cardinals hold all-time edge, 14-11 but Falcons have won five of the last seven.
What matters: A lot hinges on whether WR Julio Jones, who’s missed the past two days of practice after injuring his ankle against the Saints, is available on Sunday. The Falcons got a taste of life without Julio last week and it wasn’t pretty. He left early in the first quarter and the Falcons managed one successful drive in their next four series. One series ended in an interception and the other two were three-and-outs. Atlanta has thrived because of their numerous receiving threats, including Jones, Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez. It’s been so successful that Gonzalez has deemed the offense “PYP,” as in pick your poison. Coach Mike Smith said that Jones is a game-time decision.
Who matters: RBs Jacquizz Rodgers and Michael Turner. The Falcons rushing tandem struggled mightily last week in short-yardage situations against the Saints, the most porous rush defense in the NFL (162 ypg). The Cardinals aren’t much better as they rank 24th in the league (126). However, the strength of Arizona’s defense lies in its pass coverage, and with Jones potentially limited, the Falcons will need to prove they can move the chains with the ground game. Rodgers and Turner form a viable duo that, paired together, can be successful. Last week the two had just 44 yards on 16 carries, but it wasn’t solely their fault. The play-calling was predictable, the blocking often collapsed, and the two weren’t used properly. If Turner is to be effective, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter needs to live with his minimal gains in the hopes that he’ll wear down defenses while Rodgers may be better suited as the Falcons’ third-down back because of his quicker burst out of the backfield.
Key Matchups: Fortunately for Atlanta, the Cardinals have used a running-back-by-committee approach that’s yielded a league-worst 76 rushing yards per game, meaning that the Falcons’ tackling issues may not be exposed. However, since the Cardinals put more emphasis on their passing attack, accounting for wideouts Larry Fitzgerald (51 catches, 585 yards) and Andre Roberts (40 catches, 540 yards) is vital. CB Asante Samuel, who, at 5-10, is five inches shorter than Fitzgerald, will likely draw the assignment. Samuel came up with his second interception of the season last weekend against Drew Brees. He dropped another interception the week before against Dallas. …C Todd McClure against NT Dan Williams. If the Falcons want to rush the ball more effectively, McClure, a veteran whom some in the Falcons organization have claimed is playing at a Pro Bowl level, will need to win the battle vs. the 2010 first-round pick. Williams (6-3, 327 pounds) is a space eater in the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense and he’s coming off his best game this season, a five-tackle performance against Green Bay.
Injuries of note: Besides Jones, the Falcons will also make a game-time decision on LB Sean Weatherspoon. He’s missed the past two games. “These guys are so close and moving in the right direction that we’ll make a determination as late as we possibly can,” Smith said to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Inside stuff: The Falcons shockingly released DE Ray Edwards last Monday, whom they had signed in 2011 to a five-year deal. His release is a sign that the coaching staff has a lot of faith in hybrid defensive end Kroy Biermann. The fifth-year defender was listed as the No. 1 left defensive end on the team’s unofficial depth chart. He’s got 12 tackles and a sack in his past three games.
Connections: Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff was a scout for the Browns when current Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt was the special teams coach in Cleveland in 1999.
Stat you should know: Matt Ryan threw for 411 yards in last weekend's loss to the Saints, a new career-high and the third-highest mark in Falcons history. The performance included three touchdown passes and a passer rating of 100.7. The Falcons had never lost when he had thrown for at least three scores (29-1) or when he achieved a passer rating of 100 or better (15-1).
Record watch: Tony Gonzalez passed Cris Carter last weekend for the eighth-most receiving yards in NFL history with 13,955. Gonzalez is 50 yards shy of surpassing James Lofton, the seventh-most prolific receiver in NFL history.
Looking ahead: The Falcons travel to division-rival Tampa Bay next weekend.
Prediction: Falcons 34, Cardinals 20
For more Falcons coverage, follow Mike Singer @CBSFalcons.