The focus of the 2013 season for the Atlanta Falcons has firmly shifted from possible Super Bowl aspirations to examinations of who to take with a top-5 pick in the NFL Draft. That isn’t a new phenomenon, but it was reinforced when Atlanta lost their 9th game last Thursday against the Saints, and it casts a shadow over this Sunday’s match-up with Buffalo. However, there is still intrigue here, and it’s time to break down the game.
Opponent - Buffalo Bills (4-7, 3-3 “at home”)
Time/TV - 4:05 PM ET, FOX
Falcons Offense vs. Bills Defense
On the bright side for the offense, this isn’t the difficult weather scenario that a “road” game against Buffalo on December 1st would indicate. In fact, the game isn’t in Buffalo at all, as this one will take place in Toronto inside the Rogers Centre in perfect weather conditions. I’ll save my opinion on the Bills playing “home” games in Toronto, but for the Falcons, it’s a small victory.
Matt Ryan performed fairly well against a stingy Saints defense last week, and this should be no different, given the conditions. Ryan still captains the 6th-best passing offense in the entire league, and while those numbers are lower since Julio Jones exited, it’s still a solid unit when he’s given time to drop back. Buffalo’s pass defense is their strength on that side of the ball (12th in the NFL in passing yards allowed), and that is almost entirely due to what is a solid pass rush including former #1 overall pick Mario Williams.
The running game should have an easier time of it (in theory) this week, as Buffalo enters with the 24th-ranked rushing defense in the league. Steven Jackson looked to be much improved last week (63 yards and a TD), but they’ll need even more from him here in order to keep the Bills from pinning their ears back against the pass. There has been an underground movement to get Antone Smith carries this week (yes, this really exists), but I’d expect to see a steady does of Jackson and not much else in terms of straight-ahead carries.
Falcons Defense vs. Bills Offense
Well, the Bills don’t really terrify you on this side of the ball. The EJ Manuel-Thad Lewis-Jeff Tuhl trio has combined to form the 27th-ranked passing offense in the league this year, and simply reading those names should indicate why. Manuel, the rookie 1st-rounder from Florida State, was very good in their last game, though, throwing for 245 yards and 2 scores against a solid Jets defense.
In the backfield, the Bills have a strong two-headed monster between CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson, and they account for the league’s 7th-most productive rushing attack. Fantasy owners would likely consider it to be a “lost” season for Spiller (who has 507 rushing yards and only 1 rushing TD), but he’s still a threat to go 80 yards on any play, and Jackson is a perfect compliment as a tough, grinding ball-carrier who actually doubles as the team’s leading rusher.
Buffalo is void of playmakers on the outside, however, and that helps the porous Atlanta pass defense. Stevie Johnson is the best receiver for the Bills (471 yards, 3 TD this season), but he’s been banged-up, including an absence against New York prior to Buffalo’s bye week. Robert Woods is sure-handed on the other side, but if there’s a point of optimism, it’s that this isn’t a big-play offense outside of Spiller.
In terms of “winnability”, this ranks pretty high for the Falcons. Yes, the Bills are well-rested in that they’re coming off of a bye week, but the Falcons have a mini-bye after a Thursday night game as well, and despite the record, the team seems angry. There is certainly a contingent of people who are rooting against their own team right now in order to secure draft position, but if you look at the remaining schedule, this is probably one of the two most likely spots for a win.
Stay tuned for a game thread on Sunday morning, and be sure to join us in the comments throughout the day!