QBs shuffled as Redskins face Falcons

AP Sports WriterDecember 14, 2013 

Falcons Packers Football

MIKE ROEMER/Associated PressAtlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith reacts after failing to convert a fourth down during the final minutes of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Dec. 8 in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers won 22-21.

MIKE ROEMER — AP

ATLANTA -- The Redskins, awash in chaos and controversy, may find comfort in the reminder they're not alone in their first-to-worst misery.

An unexpected fall from the 2012 NFC East title to last place in 2013 has led to a quarterback change for Washington. Coach Mike Shanahan, facing questions about his future with the team, benched quarterback Robert Griffin III for the final three games.

Standing across the Georgia Dome field today will be an Atlanta Falcons team that has taken an even more dramatic fall to the same painful 3-10 record. One year ago, the Falcons were on their way to a 13-3 record, NFC South title, No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and berth in the NFC championship game.

Now, Atlanta is trying to avoid becoming only the third team since the 1970 merger to have the most losses in a conference one season after having the most wins, according to STATS. No NFC team has experienced such a devastating freefall.

The Raiders were the last team to go through that indignity, falling from 11-5 in 2002 to 4-12 in 2003. The Houston Oilers flopped from 12-4 in 1993 to 2-14 in 1994.

Criticism of Falcons coach Mike Smith, who is bolstered by winning records in each of his first five seasons, has been softer than the attacks aimed at Shanahan, who is on pace for a third last-place finish in four seasons.

The situations are not the same, but Shanahan joked this week he might share notes with the Atlanta coach.

"We probably should talk to each other, but you don't get a chance with your preparation," Shanahan said. "I know Mike, he's a great guy. I'll get a chance to talk to him before and after the game. But I think you've got empathy for everybody, because there's only one person that's happy and that's the person that wins."

Here are some things to watch as the Redskins try to end a five-game slide and the Falcons cling to fading hopes for a strong finish:

COUSINS IN CHARGE: Shanahan's decision shifts the spotlight to Kirk Cousins, who will make his first start of the season. Cousins made his NFL debut in a backup role in a 24-17 home loss to the Falcons last season.

Cousins completed 5 of 9 passes for 111 yards with a 77-yard touchdown to Santana Moss and two interceptions in last year's loss to Atlanta.

Shanahan's switch to Cousins could come at the right time for the second-year quarterback to shine. The Falcons could start five or more rookies on defense, including three in the secondary. First-year safety Zeke Motta may fill in for Thomas DeCoud, who left last week's 22-21 loss at Green Bay with a concussion.

REBOUND FOR MORRIS: Redskins running back Alfred Morris hasn't had as many as 15 carries or more than 52 yards rushing the last three weeks. The Falcons rank 30th in the NFL against the run, but held Green Bay's Eddie Lacy to 64 yards on 20 carries last week. The decision to start Cousins could give the Redskins another reason to emphasize the running game with Morris.

PLAYING FOR PRIDE: Lopsided losses to Arizona, Carolina, Seattle and Tampa Bay -- each by at least 13 points -- caused some to ask if the Falcons had given up on the season. But the Falcons responded with a close home loss to the Saints, followed by an overtime win over the Bills and last week's narrow loss to the Packers.

"I think again it comes down to pride, taking pride in what you do and what you put out week in and week out," said quarterback Matt Ryan.

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