The New England Patriots will face off with the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta in the Sunday night game. The New England Patriots are tied for first in the division with the Miami Dolphins at 3-0, who beat the Falcons (1-2).
If you had asked me a week ago, especially coming off of the disaster of a Pats-Jets game, I would have said the Patriots don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of beating the Falcons. The Falcons, on paper, have an elite passing attack with Matt Ryan relying on Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas, and Tony Gonzalez, who is somehow still one of the best tight ends in the league despite being present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. If there was ever a team to break the bend-don’t-break pass defense that New England depends on, it’s this one. And it didn’t seem like the Patriots could score enough to keep them in the game.
A week later? Things are looking a little better for the Patriots. Their win over the Bucs was absolutely a step in the right direction, especially the progression of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. On the other hand, the Falcons looked pretty human in their loss against the Dolphins. Either that, or the Dolphins are a whole lot better than we thought they were. Which is a much scarier thought. Let’s move on.
Key Matchup: Chandler Jones vs. Lamar Holmes
This matchup right here? It could swing the game. Lamar Holmes has been an absolute mess on the Falcons’ offensive line, ranking 61st out of 62 offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking efficiency this season. The second year-tackle has allowed 20 pressures in only 3 games this season. On the other side, Chandler Jones has shown flashes of his pre-injury self, picking up 3 sacks thus far in the season and showing himself to be the same uber-athletic, rangy talent, that should be a star in no time. Put the two together, and whaddya got?
The best way to disrupt the Falcons’ deadly aerial attack may not be from the secondary, but to put pressure on Matt Ryan early and often. And no matchup favors the Patriots more than this one. Look for Jones, Kelly, Wilfork, Ninkovich to get after the young quarterback to try and throw off his rhythm.
3 Pre-Game Questions:
- Who’s in and who’s out?
I’ll talk about this in the Prediction section below, but my feelings about this game swing entirely on whether Rob Gronkowski and/or Danny Amendola play, even at 50% their normal selves. The Patriots aren’t yearning for uber-athleticism or even big playmakers right now. They need dependable players in sync with Brady. And no-one on this roster meets those requirements more than Gronk and Amendola (although Julian Edelman has exceeded all and every expectation in that regard). Bring back those two, even in limited roles, and the entire Pats’ offense changes. All of the sudden Thompkins/Dobson go from lead receivers to 3rd/4th options, and will have much more favorable matchups. All of the sudden, the Falcons have to focus on the pass, and will open more holes for the running game. All of the sudden, Brady is his calm cool killer self.
Can the Pats survive without the two coming back this week? Eh….sure. But if they can return and even show a semblance of their former selves, this gets a whole lot easier for Belichick and his Patriots.
(Quick note: this week’s injury report is a horror show for New England. Matthew Slater is out for the game. Amendola, Gronk, Kyle Arrington, Brandon Bolden, Nate Evner, Will Svitek, Sebastian Vollmer, and Leon Washington are all listed as Questionable. Vince Wilfork apparently has a foot injury. Luckily the Falcons are just as banged up, with Jones, White, and Asante Samuel all questionable, with Steven Jackson out for the game with a hamstring issue.)
2. How will the Pats’ defense stack up with Atlanta’s passing game?
Okay, so should the Patriots not be able to generate much in the ways of a pass rush, the success of the game may rest on the shoulders of the secondary, which isn’t great, but nowhere near a lost cause. The good news? The Patriots’ passing defense stats are pretty fantastic. New England has only given up 565 yards in the air so far, good for 6th in the league, holding opposing QBs to a 50.5 completion percentage, and the longest play they’ve given up is only 37 yards. The bad news? Those QBs were EJ Manuel, Geno Smith, and Josh Freeman. To say Matt Ryan is head and shoulder above those is a huge understatement. Aqib Talib will be giving Julio Jones the same treatment he gave Vincent Jackson, and Devin McCourty will be playing centerfield should Ryan go deep. Kyle Arrington should be able to handle Douglas and Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield. Dont’a Hightower has the daunting task of covering Tony Gonzalez, but has the speed to keep up with him, and the brawn to muscle up with him. The one matchup I don’t love? Alfonzo Dennard and Roddy White. Should White make it on the field, and be able to show up at all, Ryan will absolutely go for him again and again, testing the young and undersized Dennard. Should White not play, or play similarly to as he did in the first three weeks (only 7 rec for 56 yds, 0 TD), the Patriots will have a much easier time keeping the Falcons from making big plays through the air.
3. Who’s the lead back?
I don’t have any analysis or opinion here, because I honestly don’t know. As a huge Van Riddles fan (and fantasy owner on two teams), this has been a bummer of a start for the young running back, as he hasn’t been running the ball with much consistency. LeGarrette Blount somehow has 25 carries on the season, (also, for some reason, Bill Belichick insists on Blount returning kickoffs, even though he has next to no upside, and is playing instead of All-Star returner Leon Washington or rookie burner Josh Boyce). Brandon Bolden had one nice 46-yard run last week and looks to be the lead passing back while Shane Vereen is gone. You’d have to guess either Bolden or Ridley is going to be the lead back, but against the Falcons 5th ranked run defense, we may not get big games out of either of them. But a big game from either of them may have some bearing on future games (for example, Week 6’s matchup against New Orleans, who are giving up 5.3 yards a carry, should be a fun watch).
Again, I have little to no idea where this will go. I think, should the Patriots get back Gronkowski and Amendola, that they could pull of a nice win here. Without them, Brady doesn’t have the same weapons to take advantage of Atlanta’s young corners. Then of course there’s the matter of the Falcons offense, which is by far the biggest challenge the Pats have faced. On top of that, I’m facing the immeasurable guilt of missing most of Sunday night’s game due to the freakin’ Breaking Bad finale, so there’s more bad karma.
But Tom Brady is 3-0 against Atlanta. And when in doubt, you don’t go against history or Tom Terrific. Look for one of the two injured receiving stars to return (my guess: Gronk in, Amendola out) for the Pats, and for the defense to hold Ryan from making too many big plays. It’ll be close, but Bill and Tom need a statement game after three weeks of iffy outings.
Patriots 27, Falcons 21
Here’s what our Falcons correspondent had to say about the game: Falcons host Patriots on Sunday Night