The Atlanta Falcons get an easier but by no means easy matchup this week leading into the bye. That would be the Oakland Raiders, the last team standing in the AFC West after the Falcons rolled through earlier this season.
Just because it's one of the easier games on the slate on paper doesn't mean we should be rolling our victory stogies just yet, though. Every game in today's NFL has the potential to be a nail-biter, and the Raiders have enough talent to give the Falcons fits.
In the spirit of never underestimating a foe and trying to identify the challenges the Falcons will face, it's time for the breakdown. Let's hit the four biggest matchups in the game ahead.
Raiders Burners vs. Falcons Secondary
The secondary has been excellent throughout this season, even without Brent Grimes. With Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel playing well while Robert McClain locks down the nickel spot, they've got the corners covered. Add in the best-in-the-NFC safety tandem of Thomas DeCoud and William Moore and you've got a unit more than capable of shutting down the Raiders passing attack.
Well, maybe. The problem is that the Raiders still have their track team composition on offense, thanks to the late Al Davis' need for speed. You can have all the coverage chops in the world, but sometimes the fastest guys in the NFL are just going to get by you.
Given that both Denarius Moore and Darius Heyward-Bey are healthy and ready to go, they'll need A games from the secondary to stop them. Unless, you know, Carson Palmer is inaccurate. But when has that ever happened?
The Offensive Line vs. The Raiders Front Seven
Look, the Raiders aren't exactly as good as their Bay Area counterparts at rushing the passer, but there's talent here.
For that reason alone, the pass rush needs to be watched closely. The Falcons have had some on-again, off-again struggles protecting Matt Ryan, with three excellent games versus two semi-disastrous ones thus far. It's not outside of the realm of possibility that Matt Shaughnessy could blow through the line a couple of times and cause problems for Ryan.
The team needs a strong performance to keep Ryan upright and surgical, allowing him to hopefully turn this into an easy win. The ground game could also benefit from giving Michael Turner some push up front, putting him against a relatively weak-tackling secondary. Best case scenario.
Darren McFadden vs. Defensive Tackles
Against Darren McFadden, who has an electric pair of legs under him, that's a concern. McFadden's a guy who tends to bounce more to the edges, but the Raiders may try also be tempted to push it up the middle without Babineaux or Peters doing their good work in the middle.
Of course, the Falcons have won despite weathering quality ground games before, and the Raiders' blocking is not on the same level as the Redskins. It's a doable matchup, if a frightening one.
And that very big hit I mentioned? Mike Peterson is still a capable run defender, thankfully, and Travian Robertson could be a holy terror in the middle. Maybe it won't be such a bad hit, and maybe it's worth finding out.
Matt Ryan vs. Raiders Corners
Assuming Ryan gets a little time in the pocket, this is the matchup that will blow the game wide open.
The Raiders have an excellent young safety in Tyvon Branch and some promising pieces back there, but they just aren't up to the task of covering Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas, Jacquizz Rodgers, Joe Hawley, Joe Hawley's third cousin and me, if I make my way onto the field this weekend.
Long story short: Ryan should eviscerate these guys. Keep the pass rush from revving up for the first time and this will be a bloodbath.
Your critical matchups?