1. The Falcons end the regular season with division games against the Saints and the Panthers, respectively. Considering their record and the tightness of that division race, do you feel it would be better for Atlanta to hold Julio Jones out this week in what's essentially a lesser game in terms of importance, or do you feel the Falcons should play him anyway?
I think if he can play and not risk aggravating the injury over-much, he should do so. Those last two games are obviously critical, but this is arguably the toughest game left on the docket and the Falcons may need Julio to mount the kind of aerial assault necessary to outgun the Steelers here. He's been an absolute monster the last two weeks, after all.
If there's any question at all, however, you sit him. The Falcons can beat the Saints and Panthers and be virtually guaranteed of a playoff spot, so they do need to be cognizant of that. My gut feeling is that he won't play, but I hope my guts are wrong.
2. This Falcons team gets takeaways (24 in 13 games, fourth-highest in the league). The Steelers have two turnovers or more in four of their five losses this year, and at least one turnover in all five losses. Do you feel the Falcons can steal a few possessions and ultimately take the game based on their ability to force fumbles and intercept passes?
I'm reasonably confident they can get one or more takeaways here. This isn't a team that forces a ton of fumbles, because there aren't a lot of big hitters, but the secondary is opportunistic and perfectly capable of picking Roethlisberger off more than once. I think if the Falcons are going to win this one, given how high-scoring and close it seems likely to be, those turnovers will be the difference-maker.
For the Steelers, the key is probably to go ball control mixed with some deep shots to your speedy receivers, especially if they wind up being covered by one of the Falcons' safeties. Le'Veon Bell is about as reliable as they come, after all.
3. Desmond Trufant was a cornerback I really liked coming out of college. How excited are fans about his future right now? Conversely, what's the feeling about Ra'Shede Hageman - a player I was big on heading into this past draft?
We all love Trufant. He's a stellar cornerback, easily one of the best cover-corners in the NFL already and someone who just needs to come down with a few more interceptions to be widely considered elite. He largely shut down whoever he was covering against the Packers, and I imagine he'll be on Antonio Brown often on Sunday.
Hageman's a different story, but there's nothing unexpected. He's getting limited snaps as he develops, and he still relies far more on his natural strength and size than any refined technique. To his credit, he has been a beast on special teams, where he has blocked multiple field goals and extra points.
4. Are fans willing to give head coach Mike Smith the benefit of the doubt over these last few games, or would they mind if he was fired today?
I think fans admire how Smith has been able to rally the team when it seemed they were truly dead in the water, but Falcons fans also expect and want Smitty to be fired at season's end. He has been a capable coach for this team, but the last two years have seen a lot of problems, and I don't expect him to survive the turmoil and losses.
In a way, it's a shame, because I think the credit he deserves for five straight quality years has gone missing over the last two. I'm sure with some time and perspective we'll be able to appreciate him more, but in the here and now, it's tough to argue he should come back.
5. Outside of coaching staff/front office changes, what's the one thing the Falcons need to do this off-season to improve?
They have to get a pass rush, full stop. They haven't had more than one capable pass-rusher on the roster since the early 2000's, a limitation that has come back to bite them time and time again in big games. If they had even a halfway competent pass rush in 2014, it's entirely possible they'd already have the division wrapped up. That's a weakness that cannot go unaddressed for an eighth straight season under general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who I suspect will stick around.
To buy tickets, visit the NFL Ticket Exchange.