After suffering a tough 27-23 loss on the road, the Falcons are looking to return to their winning ways in a nationally televised match-up against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. New England, whose record stands at 3-0 entering this game, will look to earn another win against the Falcons, who have not won a game against the Patriots since the 1998 Dirty Bird season. Although the Patriots are 3-0, they are not playing at the level that many people would expect. Their offense, a season after averaging a league-high 34.8 points per game, is one of 11 NFL teams averaging under 20 points per game with 19.7. With the exception of the New York Jets, every other team with an average of under 20 points per game currently owns a losing record.
New England's offense is dealing with injuries to All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will play his first game of the 2013 season on Sunday night, and the loss of other key receivers from last season due to legal troubles or free agency. All of these factors lead to Brady's completion percentage of 57.5%, which is the second worst in a three-game span in his career. The Patriots hope their offense can take flight on Sunday Night. Atlanta, similar to the Patriots, is also trying to recover from the injuries as All-Pro running back Steven Jackson and receiver Roddy White are both dealing with early injuries.
Matt Ryan will be looking to have a huge game against a New England defense that's currently the second best scoring defense in the NFL through the first three weeks. The Patriots have allowed an outstanding 11.3 points per game, only ranked behind Seattle's 9.0 points per game. Ryan will be their first big test of the 2013 NFL season, as the previous three weeks, the Patriots faced rookies Geno Smith (NYJ) and E.J. Manuel (BUF) and also, Josh Freeman (TB). Also, New England's secondary is in for a tough assignment as Falcons receiver Julio Jones is leading the NFL in receiving yards with 373 receiving yards and in receptions with 27. Sunday Night will be a great contest, and here are the keys to a Falcons victory, match-ups to watch, and my final prediction.
KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Red Zone Efficiency:
My first key is one of the biggest reasons why the Falcons are currently 1-2, and that's due to the lack of execution in the red zone. In Sunday's loss against the Dolphins, Atlanta again finished 2/5 in the red-zone including two questionable decisions to go for field goals instead of looking to score touchdowns against a Miami defense that, for the most part, was below average in the game. This Sunday, Atlanta can't afford to have long drives come to an end with a field goal or no points at all, and it starts with execution from the offense.
With the injury to Steven Jackson, don't be surprised if the Falcons use Jason Snelling as the goal-line running back. Until Jackson returns, Snelling should be Atlanta's main option in red zone situations due to his physicality, and he's a good pass blocker for Ryan when the Falcons attempt passes within the 20-yard line. The Falcons need to utilize him either in rushing situations or the occasional shovel pass, which he's known for scoring on given the opportunity.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter must dial up plays to give the Falcons the best chance to score touchdowns and prevent settling for many field goal attempts, especially with Tom Brady and New England's offense on the opposite side of the field. Also, the Falcons need to find ways to give Hall of Fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez opportunities to score in the end zone. Gonzalez is well known as one of Matt Ryan's most utilized targets when throwing in the red zone, and Sunday could be an opportunity for him to have a huge impact on the game, as he's only registered one touchdown this season.
Defensively, the Falcons need to improve their efficiency against opposing teams in the red zone. In Sunday's loss to the Dolphins, Atlanta allowed Miami to convert on every opportunity they faced between the 20-yard line and the end zone, and that's a huge problem that must be adjusted. The previous two weeks, Falcons opponents converted on six of their last seven red-zone attempts. However, the Falcons defense is facing a Patriots offense whose red-zone efficiency is even worse than Atlanta's.
Despite having a 3-0 record, New England's offense is the worst ranked red-zone offense in the NFL, and a huge reason is the inconsistency among Brady's receivers. Kembrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, first year receivers for New England, have dropped a few critical passes which could have led to touchdowns offensively. The Patriots will come into the contest trying to convert opportunities; however, the Falcons defense must rise to the challenge and force them into three and outs, which would result in more field goal attempts.
2. Falcons Must Start Fast and Finish Strong:
One of the positive traits of Atlanta is their ability to start fast and gain commanding leads early in the football game. In their losing effort to the Dolphins, the Falcons offense successfully opened a 10-0 lead, and a similar start against the Patriots could provide a huge boost for the Falcons and a sell-out Georgia Dome home crowd looking to help their team win on Sunday Night. Atlanta needs their running game to set the tone for Sunday's game, especially to give Matt Ryan and the passing attack the opportunity take flight.
Last week, the Falcons rushing attack put together one of their best outings in a while, posting 146 combined yards and averaging almost five yards per carry, which was a boost to the Falcons offense throughout the game. Similar to the Dolphins game, Atlanta should continue and split carries with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling in order to keep an effective running game in this contest.
Despite Ryan's success in the air, they still need to find a way to produce yards on the ground in order to prevent teams from blitzing. The offensive line is still trying to form a sense of chemistry, and Atlanta's one-dimensional approach on offense won't benefit them in trying to establish themselves as a decent run blocking line. Atlanta will need to find ways to prevent Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly from causing havoc in the Falcons backfield.
Now, Atlanta's biggest issue is their tendency to blow leads in critical situations. Despite the Falcons establishing a 10-0 lead early in the contest against Miami and turning it into a 20-10 lead in the second half, Miami rallied and won the game. The Falcons can't afford to surrender leads against Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday. Atlanta must play with a sense of urgency and continue to play smart football throughout the game. The Falcons offense needs to keep their balance of aggressive and conservative play calling in order to prevent another blown lead.
One of the Falcons' biggest concerns is continuing to struggle in the third quarter, which has been consistent over the last few years. Atlanta can't allow teams to come within a few points of the lead or even take the lead from the Falcons. The team must continue to keep their strategy consistent throughout all 60 minutes of the football game. This team has a tendency to go into a conservative approach after establishing leads, and in the NFL, you can't continue to do that. If the Falcons get a huge advantage early, it's imperative that the lead is maintained.
3. Falcons Defense Must Stop The Run:
Atlanta's defense must contain the Patriots from establishing a ground attack throughout Sunday's contest. In the first three weeks, with the Pats struggling to find some consistency in their passing attack, the running game led by Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount is helping as their offense still looks to form chemistry with the young receivers. The Patriots enter this week averaging 122.7 yards per game, which ranks 13th in the league, however, the Falcons defense is doing a much better job containing the run as their defense is only allowing 79.0 yards per game, which is fifth best in the NFL.
If the Falcons are going to beat New England, the running game should be taken away from the Patriots and force them to win the football game in the air, which is a struggle for them currently. Limit their running backs to minimum gains or losses of yards and that will give Atlanta's defense the opportunity to send pressure at Tom Brady in long passing downs on Sunday Night.
4. Third Down Efficiency:
The Falcons defense must step up to the challenge and prevent New England's offense from having long and productive drives on Sunday Night. In last week's loss at Miami, the Dolphins converted seven of their twelve opportunities, which is a high percentage, and that gives their opponent the chance to have long drives with the clock running, which can fatigue this young Falcons defense.
It's imperative that Atlanta's defense steps up to the challenge and prevents Tom Brady and the Patriots from carving up the Falcons' secondary on Sunday. Currently, Atlanta ranks 29th in the NFL in allowing third down conversions with 47.6%, and that must improve because they're giving their opponents second chances to score points and leaving their offense off the field. One significant point the Atlanta Falcons have presented on defense since acquiring coordinator Mike Nolan last season is their ability to make adjustments at the line and disguise their scheme to perfection in order to confuse their opposing quarterbacks.
Their ability to disguise their defensive game strategy caused them to force some of the top tier quarterbacks in the NFL such as Peyton Manning and Drew Brees into costly mistakes during some of our biggest home games last season. On Sunday, the Falcons must control the tempo on offense and create havoc on defense including throwing different looks at Tom Brady, especially with the struggles his receiving core is dealing with early in the season.
5. Dome Field Advantage:
It's one of the biggest home games of the season and a sell-out Georgia Dome crowd will be pumped to face one of the elite quarterbacks in the league today. The Falcons fans need to be in their seats on time, and although many people don't view this as a key factor to victory, it's critical. Fans can disrupt the flow of an opposing offense and force false start penalties. Atlanta's home crowd must "RISE UP" and continue to make the Georgia Dome one of the hardest venues to win in around the NFL. Since 2008, Atlanta is 35-9 at home, and the Falcons will look to continue their home dominance with the fans playing a huge part in Sunday's game. Fans need to be in their seats before kickoff and not making their way into the Dome late in the first quarter or halftime, and the team needs to feel the support from their hometown fans from the start in order to motivate them to play Falcons football. The Falcons fans must make the atmosphere hostile and that can give the Falcons defense an extra boost in front of a national audience on NBC.
Lamar Holmes will face yet another good defensive end in Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, who is a force when it comes to rushing the quarterback. One of Jones' biggest trademark moves is the upfield rush with an inside counter move. Usually, when you see a defensive end bring this type of pressure, most offensive lineman aren't quick to adjust and Holmes has gone through many ups and downs from dealing with Robert Quinn two weeks ago, and even Oliver Vernon last week.
It's imperative that Holmes pays attention to Jones' signature moves or he'll give Jones a clean shot at Matt Ryan on Sunday. Jones will be their biggest threat at defensive end, and if Lamar Holmes can make the necessary adjustments and prevent him from pressuring Ryan, it could be a long night for the Patriots defense.
2. WR Julio Jones vs CB Aqib Talib:
This is a familiar match-up due to Talib's time as the starting corner back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2008-2011; however, Talib was usually matched with Roddy White. Talib did an impressive job trying to contain receiver Vincent Jackson from having a huge impact in their 23-3 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday; however, he's dealing with one of the best up-and-coming receivers in the NFL on Sunday Night.
Julio Jones is off to a great start in his 2013 campaign as he's posted a league-best 27 receptions and 373 receiving yards. Jones is going to be in for a huge game on Sunday night. Aqib Talib and the Patriots secondary must figure out a way to contain him and the Falcons will look to utilize him in many different aspects of their passing game.
3. TE Rob Gronkowski vs Falcons Linebackers:
The Falcons secondary will be tested by yet another young and athletic tight end in Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is one of Tom Brady's favorite options and one of the elite tight ends in the NFL today. With the injury to Sean Weatherspoon and the Falcons starting two rookie linebackers, expect Brady to challenge the young guys early and often.
Defending tight ends is one of the Falcons biggest concerns on defense. Akeem Dent, Joplo Bartu, and the rest of the linebacker corps will need to play tight coverage on the explosive tight end because if he's allowed to have his way, it could be a long game for the Falcons defense on Sunday afternoon.
4. QB Matt Ryan vs Patriots secondary:
As mentioned earlier, Matt Ryan will be the first huge test for New England's secondary this season. Unlike the other quarterbacks the Patriots faced this season, Ryan has many weapons that he'll get involved, whether it's Julio Jones, Roddy White or Harry Douglas, or even utilizing his screen game with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling.
Ryan is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the game today, and if the Patriots will have any chance on Sunday, their secondary must be prepared. Aqib Talib is the only current member of the Patriots secondary that has faced the Atlanta passing attack, and it's imperative that New England is prepared mentally and physically or Ryan will continue his great 2013 season on Sunday Night.
5. Kembrell Thompkins vs Desmond Trufant:
On Sunday, the Falcons rookie corner back will get an opportunity to face Patriots rookie receiver Kembrell Thompkins, who is showing improvement, especially after his impressive contest against Tampa Bay on Sunday, in which he posted just 41 receiving yards but two touchdown receptions. With the addition of Rob Gronkowski back to the Patriots line-up, he'll have more opportunities. If Trufant can limit Thompkins from making an impact on Sunday's contest, it could be a huge win for the Falcons defense.
PREDICTION: FALCONS 34 PATRIOTS 27
In a huge contest against the New England Patriots at home, I expect the Falcons to step up and earn a much-needed victory to begin their three-game home stretch at the Georgia Dome. Julio Jones will continue to have a monster start to his 2013 campaign, Atlanta's running game will put together another impressive outing and we'll see Tony Gonzalez have an impact on a national stage. I expect both football teams to compete and play great football, but Atlanta will come away with a close win in prime-time. Until next week, RISE UP and beat the Patriots!
Side Note: I've been selected as one of NBC's Sunday Night Football Fans of the Week, so I'll embark on a VIP experience this weekend, including special events at the Falcons vs Patriots game, so take a look at my Twitter account to see the different festivities going on all weekend long!