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Five things to watch when the Falcons host the Colts in Week 16 home matchup

Taylor Heinicke takes over as QB1 for Atlanta. What does this mean for the offense? 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- After suffering a 9-7 loss to Carolina last Sunday, stacking wins to close out the season has never been more important for the Falcons. They'll have a chance to get back on track this weekend as they host the Indianapolis Colts this Sunday at 1 p.m.

Here's your five things to watch when things kick off in Atlanta.


1. QB2 to QB1

The Falcons have decided to make a change at quarterback for the third time this season. Three weeks prior to their Week 11 bye, head coach Arthur Smith replaced starting quarterback Desmond Ridder with backup Taylor Heinicke, stating then that Heinicke gave the Falcons the best chance to win.

Heinicke made two starts in three appearances prior to the bye. He did not finish the Falcons Week 10 loss to the Cardinals due to a hamstring injury suffered late in the game. During this three-game stretch, Heinicke was 0-2 as a starter, totaling 41 completions on 74 attempts, 498-yards passing, three touchdowns, one interception and completion percentage of 55.4%.

Before the Falcons bye week officially began, Smith said the Falcons did not want to play "musical chairs" at the quarterback position and that the coaching staff would make a decision regarding the starting quarterback position moving forward. Once the bye week ended, the Falcons had gone back to Ridder, with Smith saying the plan was to keep Ridder as QB1 to finish out the season. After a game-altering interception in Week 15's loss to the Panthers, though, the plan changed.

Smith confirmed on Wednesday that the Falcons will start Heinicke for the remainder of the season. What offensive changes - if any - could arise because of this decision? What differences could be seen with Heinicke under center in comparison to his previous appearances as the starter? We'll find out.

2. Questions of health

Friday's injury report was the cleanest the Falcons have had in a couple weeks. Chris Lindstrom, Drew Dalman and Jake Matthews were given the all-clear to play Sunday after working through various injuries that kept them off the field at different points in the last two games. The Falcons are still waiting to make a decision on a few more players, though.

David Onyemata (ankle), Kaleb McGary (knee) and Bud Dupree (back) were all listed as questionable for Sunday's game. If Onyemata and McGary can't go, it'll be the third game in a row the Falcons will have to account for their absences. Storm Norton has filled in McGary's vacant spot at right tackle since his injury, while players like Ta'Quon Graham and Albert Huggins have seen more usage in Onyemata's absence along the defensive interior. That would likely remain the case for the Falcons in the instance that McGary and Onyemata show up on the team's inactives list Sunday.

On the Colts side of the injury report, they received some good news on wide receiver Michael Pittman. He cleared concussion protocol on Friday, meaning he will be available for the Colts on Sunday. Also, star running back Jonathan Taylor wasn't listed on the injury report and could well make his return after a three-game absence.

3. Rookies, stand up

As Amna Subhan reported in Falcons Daily on Friday, even though everyone wants to talk about Bijan Robinson, beyond the rookie running back, the Falcons rookie class has been a relied upon group for the Falcons in 2023, but particularly in recent games.

At one point in the Falcons loss to Tampa Bay in Week 14, Matthew Bergeron was the only starting offensive lineman on the Falcons front. People forget that Bergeron had never taking a single snap at guard prior to this year, having been a tackle for years before being drafted by the Falcons in the second round of this year's draft.

Then, there's Clark Phillips III and DeMarcco Hellams, two Day 3 defensive backs who have found their way into a stacked defensive rotation. Hellams has started two of the last three games in the Falcons secondary after being primarily a special teams player in the first half of the 2023 season. Phillips has, too, stepping in after injuries to both A.J. Terrell and Jeff Okudah. Phillips didn't even see the field at times this season, having been inactive for six games this year. Both have made a surprising impact in the recent chances they've gotten.

Then, there's Zach Harrison, who notched the first sack of his career last week against Bryce Young. Harrison has been a part of this defensive rotation, but only recently has his presence been felt to a stronger degree.

In everything, these Falcons rookies have established themselves as important pieces of this team. The final three games of the season will continue to test their endurance and playmaking abilities in games where the Falcons need wins.

4. Winning the turnover battle

You cannot tell the story of the 2023 Atlanta Falcons without talking about turnovers. The Falcons most recent loss to Carolina was a microcosm of this unwelcome trend. Atlanta only had three possessions in the second half of last Sunday's game. They turned the ball over in two of the three of those drives.

More often than not, if you lose the turnover battle, you lose the game. The Falcons know this to be true. They have a 6-8 record and a standing within the bottom third of the league with a minus-6 turnover margin.

What adds further significance to this issue is the fact that the Falcons offense is turning the ball over in games where they're simultaneously not scoring in drives where they don't give the ball up. That combination makes the margin of error so small. If the Falcons aren't careful, Sunday's game could be another day turnovers tell the tale.

Detail view of the Grinch cleats worn by Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson #84 during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Thursday, December 21, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

5. Eyes on the NFC South

The Falcons are not out of contention for the divisional crown yet, but the odds aren't good.

After suffering consecutive divisional losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina, the Falcons' chances of making the playoffs dropped to 11%, according to the New York Times playoff percentages. In eight days, they went from controlling their own destiny in the league, to having to depend on stacking wins themselves and losses for others to get them there.

The Saints have already helped the margin a little bit, having lost to the Rams on Thursday Night Football. The Falcons ideally need to win-out, but a two-win combination of either the Colts, Bears or Saints games accompanied with two Tampa Bay losses during that time could switch the division on its head. To close out the season, the Bucs face the Jaguars, Saints and Panthers. If they win two of the three games they have left, it's probable the Bucs are the division champions. However, with three weeks left, anything could happen and the Falcons would stay alive with a win over the Colts, who beat the Bucs 27-20 at the end of November.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Indianapolis Colts, presented by Fast Twitch by Gatorade.

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