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Playoff hopefuls square off in Cleveland

(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons and the Cleveland Browns are both hoping to earn a berth in the playoffs, and are both in need of a victory this week when they meet in a Week 17 affair on Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The Falcons snapped a two-game losing streak last week when they defeated the Detroit Lions, 36-15. Michael Vick completed 20-of-38 passes, while throwing for a career-high 337 yards and two scores, while Warrick Dunn rushed 30 times for 132 yards and a touchdown. WR Quentin McCord finished with a career-high seven catches for 182 yards and a score.

"It's something I've been waiting to do since my career started this year," Vick said about his 300-yard game. "We were fortunate to come out and have a great day and play some real good football. We played fundamentally sound up front. Everybody did their jobs. Quentin McCord stepped up big. He played like we knew he was capable of playing. Overall, it was just a great win."

This week, the Falcons can clinch a playoff berth with a win or a tie, a loss or tie by the New York Giants, who play Philadelphia, or a loss or tie by the New Orleans Saints, who do battle with the Carolina Panthers.

The Browns defeated the Baltimore Ravens 14-13 last week to keep their playoff hopes alive. Tim Couch completed 22-of-31 passes for 209 yards, including a one-yard touchdown pass to Mark Campbell with 29 seconds remaining to give the Browns the win.

"That's what this team has been about all year long," said Cleveland head coach Butch Davis. "They have wanted to play meaningful games in December and we certainly put ourselves in that situation. I don't think there was one threat of panic."

The Browns can earn a playoff spot this week, but they need quite a bit of help. The Browns need a win, coupled with a Denver Broncosí win over the Arizona Cardinals and a New York Jetsí win over the Green Bay Packers, or a win, plus a Kansas City Chiefsí loss or tie to the Raiders and a Jetsí win, or a Broncosí win, coupled with a win or tie by the Miami Dolphins in their game against the New England Patriots. Also, a win, plus a Chiefsí loss or tie, coupled with a Dolphinsí win or tie would give the Browns a postseason berth, as would a win, plus a Jetsí loss, a Patriotsí loss, a Broncosí loss or tie, a Chiefsí loss and a San Diego Chargersí loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Also, a Patriotsí loss, coupled with a Jetsí loss, a Baltimore Ravensí loss or tie to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a Broncosí loss, a Chargersí loss and a Chiefsí loss would give the Browns a playoff spot.

SERIES HISTORY: The Browns have an 8-2 record versus the Falcons, but in the last meeting, in November 1993, it was Atlanta who walked away with a 17-14 win, as Atlanta QB Bobby Hebert threw a pair of TD strikes.

Dan Reeves is 10-2 versus the Browns, while Davis has never faced the Falcons

FALCONS OFFENSE VS. BROWNS DEFENSE

The Falcons' offense seemed to get back on track last week, as McCord looked like a quality starting wideout. Going into the game, McCord had only caught four passes for 59 yards in his two-year career.

"I've been waiting for this opportunity," McCord said. "Fortunately, Vick came to me early. I made a couple of plays and he felt comfortable enough to keep coming to me."

Vick also improved last week. After a pair of sub-par games, Vick was back to his old self, creating havoc for Detroit's defense. Vick leads an offense that averages 25.7 points per game (fifth best in NFL), and has already run for 739 yards, second on the team.

But the Falcons victory against the Lions did come with some bad news. Fullback Bob Christian will miss this week's game with the Browns after suffering his second concussion in two months.

The play occurred early in the fourth quarter when Christian caught a pass in the right flat. After gaining 12 yards, linebacker Barrett Green hit the side of Christian's helmet with his forearm, knocking him unconscious and causing him to fumble.

"It is scary," Christian said. "You know, when I was in the ambulance, I was feeling nauseous and I'm just trying to remember what happened. There's lot of things I couldn't remember, and that's pretty scary.

"It's weird what you remember and what you know. I knew my mind wasn't working exactly right and I was hoping things would clear up, so that's very scary."

Christian's absence will also hurt the team's offense. He was one of the key blockers in the running game, and he also gave Vick a short option in the passing game. He will be replaced in the lineup by second-year backup George Layne, who was re-signed to the 53-man roster last month after sustaining a concussion in August.

While the Falcons were happy with the victory, they were also disappointed with their offense inside the red zone, as they scored just one touchdown on five trips into the Detroit red zone.

"We just didn't execute like we can and like we should in the red zone," Falcons guard Kynan Forney said.

"When you don't score, it kind of upsets you," Vick said. "We're down there five or six times, and we get five field goals in the first half and part of the third quarter. It was tough."

While the Falcons' offense has faced many problems, the Browns' defense is still not looking forward to the task of stopping Vick.

"When he becomes a complete quarterback and develops the intangibles, he's going to be scary," said defensive end Kenard Lang. "I want to see him two to three years from now. He'll be a Hall of Famer."

This week, the Browns' defense is focused on making the playoffs. And the unit, which allows an average of 20.3 points per game and 334.5 yards per game, is intent on getting a win that would put them in position to make the postseason.

"We knew it was all going to come down to the last week," safety Earl Little said. "After all thatís happened, here we are. We just need to take care of our own business and get some help from Miami and Denver or Oakland."

"It feels good to be in this position," defensive end Tyrone Rogers said. "Iíve been here four years, and now we finally have an opportunity to go to the playoffs."

"I donít want to go home in January and watch my friends play," Lang added. "I came here to Cleveland to go to the playoffs. Thatís why Butch Davis brought me here."

BROWNS OFFENSE VS. FALCONS DEFENSE

Couch was praised for his efforts last week in the come from behind win over the Ravens, but he gave a lot of credit to his teammates in the do or die situation that saw the team march 92 yards that ended with his TD pass to Campbell with 29 seconds left. The pass, coupled with the extra point by Phil Dawson, gave the Browns the win.

"I walked into the huddle and told the guys, 'This is our season and we either go home or continue to stay alive,'" Couch said. "They responded like I thought they would."

The team will have to continue to respond. The Browns, who average 21.3 points and 313.9 yards per game, will need a strong effort by the offense, not only to score, but to keep Vick and company off the field. Because of that, they will need to establish a running game early. On the year, the Browns average just 94.5 rushing yards per game, but rookie RB William Green has become a legitimate starting running back.

Couch could be without one of their primary targets this week, as Dennis Northcutt is officially listed as questionable on the injury report. Northcutt, who has scored eight touchdowns this year, hasnít played since December 1 when he sprained the MCL in his right knee against Carolina.

"Iím just doing what I can to try to get back," Northcutt said. "There wasnít any soreness or swelling last week, so weíll see. I would love to be back for this game. I feel like I have to be out there but, at the same time, we arenít going to do anything stupid."

In Northcutt's absence, Second year wideout Quincy Morgan has stepped up and has become more involved in the offense. He is currently the team's big play guy, having caught 54 passes for 932 yards and seven touchdowns.

"I've always been a big-play guy, for some reason," Morgan said. "I didn't plan it that way, it just happened. I've never been one to catch 10 passes a game. It's always been three for 100 yards, or something like that."

"This has been a great growth year for Quincy," Davis said. "He's certainly built on what he did as a rookie."

Davis also praised the receiving corps for their downfield blocks, especially in the running game, something Morgan is very proud of.

"Blocking is a mind-set, plain and simple," Morgan said. "You either want to do it or you don't. I've always had the ability to block, but I didn't concentrate on it until I got here. Now it's in my head. If you want to play for this coaching staff, you have to be a good receiver and a good blocker."

This week, the Browns line up across from a stingy Falcons' defense that is allowing just 19.3 points per game, sixth best in the NFL. The unit is holding the opposition to under 20 points per game, despite giving up an average of 334.4 yards per game, but that can be explained by the team's big play abilities. They are currently fourth in the NFL with 21 interceptions, and fifth with 44 sacks.

Like the Browns, the Falcons' defense is hoping to get a win in order to secure their playoff position.

"It's disappointing we put ourselves in this position, but the important thing is we're alive," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "We're kicking, scratching, bleeding and doing everything we can to get into the playoffs."

12/26 13:02:03 ET


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