The Atlanta Falcons are 1-2.
That isn’t exactly where most people thought the team would be through 3 weeks, but after a devastating loss to the Dolphins in Week 3, that’s where we are. However, things don’t get easier for the Dirty Birds, as the 3-0 New England Patriots are coming to town on Sunday evening. Let’s get to the particulars.
Opponent - New England Patriots (3-0, 1-0 on road)
Time/TV - 8:30 PM ET, NBC (National)
Falcons Offense vs. Patriots Defense
At first glance, this is (by far) the easier match-up for Atlanta, as the Patriots defense has struggled for years, and Matt Ryan leads an all-world offense for the Falcons. However, the Falcons are coming in short-handed and the New England defense has exceeded expectations this season.
On the ground, the Falcons will be without Steven Jackson again this week, but the Snelling/Rodgers duo has been reasonably effective in his absence. The Patriots have struggled a bit against the run, allowing 120 yards per game (22nd in the league), but there is some skepticism that the Falcons can replicate their running effectiveness from the Miami game. Look for Snelling and Rodgers to split time fairly evenly, but don’t be surprised if the Falcons noticeably miss Jackson in this spot.
Roddy White is expected to play this week, but he has certainly not been “RODDY WHITE” this season. It’s tough to predict a breakout without knowing that he’s 100% healthy with the ankle sprain, and that puts a ton of pressure on Julio Jones. Fortunately, Jones has been up to that task as the NFL’s leading receiver through 3 weeks (373 yards), but the Pats have been excellent against the pass this year (shockingly), and they’ll be geared up for Jones.
Tony Gonzalez could be an offensive key this week, and he’s been a bit of a disappointment after his emergence from retirement. The best tight end of all time has only mounted 93 yards in 3 games, and I would expect his targets (averaging 6 per game) to skyrocket this week in an attempt to get him going.
Falcons Defense vs. Patriots Offense
Here’s where the fear begins. Tom Brady is in town, and while he’s struggled this year (well, his receivers have), he’s still Tom Brady. It’s shocking to see New England near the bottom of the league in passing categories, but when you have Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola on the shelf (and Aaron Hernandez behind bars), that is where they land.
The Falcons secondary will still be challenged thanks to Brady’s greatness, but taking away Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman isn’t the same as doing so to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The big question surrounding this game is the availability of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola. Gronkowski is one of the best two tight ends in the league (hello, Jimmy Graham), but he’s been sidelined for each of the 3 games due to various injury concerns and is listed as questionable for the game. Amendola was supposed to be Wes Welker lite (or better, depending on who you believe), but his injury-prone reputation has struck again.
On the ground, the Pats have Stevan Ridley, but he has had a tough time this season, rushing for only 121 yards in 3 games. With that, the Pats have a bit of a rotation going that includes Ridley, LaGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden, and with Bill Belichick and company, you never know who will carry the ball. Somehow, they’ve been fairly successful on the ground anyway (12th in the NFL at 123 yards per game), and it’ll be important to contain their big backs between the tackles.
This is a huge game for the Falcons, and there is no way around that. Falling to 1-3 after 4 weeks would be devastating, and with the Saints at 3-0 (with a win over Atlanta included), the division could get out of hand in a hurry. The Patriots haven’t been terribly impressive in amassing their 3 wins, but on a neutral field, they’d almost certainly be the favorites over the Falcons at this stage. Fortunately, this game is taking place in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome, and with that (plus a sense of urgency), I am feeling positive about the prospects of the Falcons on Sunday evening.
Stay tuned for a game thread on Sunday (posted in the afternoon for a night game), and be sure to join us in the comments throughout the day!