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Five things to watch when Falcons host Arizona Cardinals on New Year's Day

J.J. Watt's retirement, Desmond Ridder's continued development and Colt McCoy under center among your five things to watch. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The last day of 2022 is upon us, and the Falcons will open 2023 hosting the Arizona Cardinals at home. Neither team is a playoff contender, and their seasons will end after another week.

That doesn't mean this game is meaningless, though. On the contrary, it's actually pretty meaningful for the individuals on these teams if not for the teams as a whole.


With this thought in mind, let's gear up for this match up on Sunday.

1. J.J. Watt's farewell tour continues

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year made the announcement via his social media earlier in the week that he would be retiring at the conclusion of the 2022 season. At 33 years old, Watt said during the week that after 12 years in the league, he's at peace with his decision and its one he's been thinking about for a while. What's almost ironic, though, is that Watt is still playing at a very high level.

The veteran defensive end was a menace against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers when the two team's faced off on Christmas Day. This comes after a three-sack day against Denver the week before. So, yes, Watt is still playing at his usually Watt-level.

With the Cardinals out of playoff contention and with only two games left in his career, the Falcons should be worried about Watt. Why? Well, what does he have to lose? He's a man playing with his hair on fire and with no real concern for opposing players he burns. That's dangerous.

Prepare for him to be a handful on Sunday, one that Desmond Ridder and the entire offense will have to account for.

Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt (99) warms up before kickoff against the New England Patriots during an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz. (Cooper Neill via AP)

2. Cardinals' QB carousel

After Trace McSorley's appearance on Christmas, the Cardinals went back to McCoy at quarterback after he cleared concussion protocol earlier in the week.

When asked about giving McCoy the start and not sticking with McSorley, Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury said he wanted to give McCoy a chance to finish the season on the field. From McCoy's perspective, he made it known he wanted to get the ball back into his hands.

"We had some meetings (Tuesday) and I just said, 'Kyler (Murray) can't play and you brought me here to play. I want to finish the season strong,'" McCoy said via the team's website. "That all hinged on getting cleared and going through the whole concussion protocol and the doctors did a fantastic job. I was fighting to play last week but they weren't having it.

"I'm fully cleared and excited about getting another opportunity."

However, that comment wouldn't age well as it was reported on Friday that McCoy experienced more concussion symptoms as the week progressed. Kingsbury ruled McCoy out for Sunday's game and announced David Blough would make the start at quarterback in Atlanta.

When asked about a new quarterback getting the start, Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he's focused just as much, if not more so, on the Cardinals receiving threats.

Regardless of who got the start at quarterback, defending this group of receivers was going to be a priority.

"When you start looking at names, they have three guys who were at least number ones on their team," Pees said. "A.J. Green was a number one. (DeAndre) Hopkins was a number one. (Stephen) Anderson was a number one. Then you have (Marquise) Hollywood (Brown). You have a bunch of guys... I wouldn't make too much of the quarterback thing."

3. Falcons offense in the red area

The Falcons were 0-for-4 in the red zone against Baltimore. More so, they haven't scored more than 20 points in any of their last four games. Meanwhile, the defense has held opponents to about 20 points per game in the last seven games.

As Arthur Smith has put it in recent weeks: The Falcons have to score more points. Period.

The good news for the Falcons is that the Cardinals haven't scored more than 20 points in a game since the end of November, either. This could bode well for the Falcons defense, but not if the offense doesn't hold up their end of the bargain.

The Falcons have to find a way into the endzone. They spent four quarters in Baltimore unable to do so, and for them to get "over the hump" of winning games - as Smith has said before - the only way to do that is to... well... score.

Nothing against Younghoe Koo, but he'd probably also agree that the Falcons need to see less of him in field goal attempts and more of him in PAT situations.

4. Continued development for Desmond Ridder

Let's be honest. At this point in the season, we know exactly who this 2022 Falcons team is. We know their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. We know what works for them, and what doesn't. There is little mystery left to be uncovered.

With two games remaining in the 2022 season, you are who you are at this point.

However, the only question mark still left for this team involves Ridder and his continued development.

Despite the Falcons inability to cross the goal line in Baltimore, there were obvious improvements for Ridder from his first start in New Orleans to his second start in Baltimore.

How he continues to grow from Start 2 to Start 3 will absolutely be a point of discussing and observation. What type of jump can he make next? Well, in his first start at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Ridder's goal is to get the ball into the endzone.

"I've been thinking about that for two weeks," Ridder said. "Trust me, I've been thinking."

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder #4 prepares to take a snap during the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland on Saturday, December 24, 2022. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

5. Who comes to play

This quote from Grady Jarrett after the Falcons loss to Baltimore spoke volumes about the mentality he feels this team has to have now that they are officially out of playoff contention.

"You can't let circumstances dictate the effort and the want-to and the will and the passion that you play with," Jarrett said. "If that's a determining factor in how hard you're going to go, that's not the right person for us. You have to go out and put your best foot forward."

Ridder followed this notion up on Wednesday, saying that the players in the Falcons locker room showed up to work this week like they always have.

"There are a lot of teams who might have some guys who once you don't make the playoffs or you see your team is out of it, some guys might lull off and figure out where they're going on vacation and everything," Ridder said. "That's one thing that we're trying not to do here... We talked about how in these next two games we want to finish strong, not only to see success for our team but for next season as well."

Effort has never been a problem for the Falcons in 2022. They play hard and physical on every down. That's who they are. Their identity is in physicality. But will that physicality show up now that there is no future beyond the end of the regular season? That's something to watch.

Coaches and players said this week that they have the "right" men in their locker room. Can they prove that with a productive win on Sunday?

The guys put in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Arizona Cardinals.


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