Cover 9@9: Falcons firmly on the playoff bubble

1. The no-spin zone: The Falcons (5-6) are on the playoff bubble as they are set to face the Commanders (6-5) at 1 p.m. Sunday at FedEx Field.

The Falcons are a half-game behind the Buccaneers (5-5) and currently would be a No. 9 seed, but there are only seven playoff berths available.

Washington would be a No. 8 seed, and Seattle (6-4) is the seventh. The Falcons hold the tiebreaker over the Seahawks and the 49ers, who are the third seed (6-4).

ExploreWashington’s Taylor Heinicke torched Falcons in last meeting

After the Commanders, the Falcons play the Steelers (3-7) on Dec. 4, have their bye week and then play at the Saints (4-7) on Dec. 18, at Ravens (7-3) on Dec. 24, host the Cardinals (4-7) on Jan. 1 and the Bucs (5-5) on Jan. 8.

The Bucs have the Browns (3-7) on Sunday, the Saints on Dec. 5, at the 49ers on Dec. 11, Bengals (6-4) on Dec. 18, at the Cardinals on Dec. 25, the Panthers (3-8) on Jan. 1 and at the Falcons on Jan. 8.

The Falcons and the Bucs play two teams who currently have winning records. For the Falcons, that’s the Commanders and Ravens, and for the Bucs, it’s the 49ers and Bengals.

The Saints are 1 ½ games behind the Bucs, and the Panthers are 2 ½ back.

The Saints and Panthers pretty much need to run the table and root for the Falcons’ and Bucs’ opponents.

2. The matchup: The Falcons, who are trying to climb to the top of the NFC South, are set to face one of the hottest teams in the NFL.

The Commanders have won five of their past six games.

They defeated the Eagles to end their undefeated season Nov. 14 and followed that with a 23-10 win over the Texans on Sunday.

3. Heinicke time: Taylor Heinicke, who played at Collins Hill High, has been named the starting quarterback for the Commanders. He’s 4-1 as a starter after taking over for Carson Wentz.

“It’s one of those things where he knows where to go with the ball and where it should be, and he just launches it,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said to the local media Monday. “He does it in a fashion where he almost expects good things to happen.”

Heinicke has completed 90 of 148 passes (60.8%) for 1,031 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions. He has a passer rating of 81.8.

ExploreFalcons rookies Arnold Ebiketie, DeAngelo Malone coming along at outside LB

4. The weapons: Washington relies on its rushing attack, which is paced by Antonio Gibson, who played at Eagle’s Landing High, and Brian Robinson.

Gibson has rushed 121 times for 444 yards and three touchdowns. Robinson has rushed 108 times for 362 yards and two touchdowns.

“Both good players,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “They’ve started running the ball a lot, and obviously, Heinicke can make big plays; they have a good receiving corps. It’s a good team. It’s a good roster.”

Also, Curtis Samuel has rushed 24 times for 152 yards and a touchdown.

Washington ranks No. 1 in the league in time of possession at 32 minutes, 44 seconds per game.

In addition to the rushing attack, wide receiver Terry McLaurin is a key weapon. McLaurin has 77 catches for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns. He has had three 100-yard games this season.

In the game against the Falcons last season, McLaurin caught 6 of 13 targets for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

5. Stout defensive front: Washington is anchored by a strong defensive front that features tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen. Defensive end Chase Young also could return to pair with Montez Sweat, who played at Stephenson High.

“They’ve got a million first-round picks up front on the defensive line, and they’re all good players,” Smith said. “So, we’ll have to see if they get Chase Young back; that’s one more good player that they can put out there. It’ll be a fun challenge this time of year.”

Rivera, who was the coach of the Carolina Panthers from 2011-19, believes his team has turned the corner.

“My message was that they are a solid young football team that’s kind of finding their way,” Rivera said. “They are scrappy. They are tough. They are underdogs. They are guys that are striving to be the best.”

Getting over .500 has worked wonders for the Commanders.

“They have the ability to ascend to another level,” Rivera said. “I really think so.”

6. The last meeting: Last season, the Commanders defeated the Falcons 34-30 on Oct. 3, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to reach 2-2. They went on to finish 7-10.

Heinicke tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to J.D. McKissic with 33 seconds left to play.

Heinicke has the Falcons’ attention.

“He can extend plays,” Smith said. “He did a great job; everybody saw that Monday night game (against the Eagles with him) keeping drives alive.”

The Falcons weren’t surprised the Commanders elected to hitch their wagon to Heinicke, who has been a backup for most of his career.

“Tough player. I’ve got an appreciation for a guy who waited his turn, sat and came back, reminds me of Ryan Fitzpatrick a little bit,” Smith said. “Tougher than hell and not afraid to make any throw. You can see why his teammates love him.”

7. Series record: This will be the 27th meeting. The Commanders lead the series 15-10-1.

8. Tale of the tape: Here’s how the Falcons and Commanders match up statistically:

2022 season rankings

Commanders / Falcons

19.5 (23) Pts/Game 23.5 (13)

325.9 (22) Tot Off. 313.8 (26)

116.1 (16) Net Rush Yds/Game 159.4 (3)

209.8 (21) Net Pass Yds/Game 154.5 (31)

32:44 (1) Poss Avg. 29:15 (23)

20.3 (12) Opp Pts/Game 24.9 (28t)

308.0 (6) Opp Tot Off. 389.4 (30)

103.1 (6) Opp Rush Yds/Game 123.1 (21)

204.9 (12) Opp Pass Yds/Game 266.3 (29)

0 (16) Turnover Differential -1 (21)

9. Depth chart: Here’s a look at the Falcons’ depth chart:

OFFENSE

QB – Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder

RB – Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams

FB – Keith Smith

WR – Drake London, Damiere Byrd, Bryan Edwards

TE – Parker Hesse, Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt, Feleipe Franks

LT – Jake Matthews

LG – Chuma Edoga, Colby Gossett

C – Drew Dalman

RG – Chris Lindstrom, Ryan Neuzil

RT – Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi

WR – Olamide Zaccheaus, KhaDarel Hodge

DEFENSE

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, DeAngelo Malone

DE – Grady Jarrett, Timothy Horne

NT – Abdullah Anderson, Jalen Dalton

DE – Matt Dickerson, Jaleel Johnson

OLB – Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie

ILB – Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkoski

ILB – Mykal Walker, Troy Andersen, Nate Landman

CB – A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, Mike Ford, Rashad Fenton

FS – Jaylinn Hawkins, Jovante Moffatt

SS – Richie Grant, Erik Harris

CB – Darren Hall, Dee Alford, Cornell Armstrong

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P/H – Bradley Pinion

LS – Liam McCullough