We all know what's at stake here. The Falcons at 2-2 are hanging around just fine in a struggling NFC, especially with games against the Jets and Buccaneers following this one. At 1-3, they could be three games behind the Saints and certainly won't be where they would like to be considering the injuries and performances they've seen thus far.
So a win is important. It's also important because they're playing a tough team, a team with a coach known for his ability to adjust his gameplan and exploit another team's weaknesses. Even at home, this has all the hallmarks of a close, hard-fought game, and the Falcons have been losing those lately.
Let's set aside the gloom now. I firmly believe the Falcons can and will win this game. I believe that their backs are against the wall, they've had their heart questioned all week and they're determined to show they're not out of the race after three weeks. To win, they're just going to need to take advantage of the matchups afforded to them and go kick some butt.
Here are the four matchups I'll be watching.
Joplo Bartu & William Moore vs. Rob Gronkowski (?)
Look at these likely receiver-cornerback matchups:
Asante Samuel vs. Kenbrell Thompkins
Desmond Trufant vs. Aaron Dobson
Robert McClain/Robert Alford vs. Julian Edelman
There's not a single matchup there that terrifies me. Thompkins and Dobson are capable of big games but don't have favorable matchups. Edelman is dangerous and McClain hasn't played well recently, but the Falcons can always try Alford on him if things go sour, and I think he'll fare pretty well.
I suspect the most dangerous of Tom Brady's throws are going to wind up going to Rob Gronkowski and the running backs, and I'm particularly concerned about the former. Even a limited or rusty Gronk is a dangerous threat, particularly in the red zone. His size and speed ensure that.
So it'll fall to some combination of Joplo Bartu and William Moore to keep him in check, I'd suspect. That's a pretty potent duo to throw at anyone. Bartu has shown the best coverage chops of any linebacker on the team through three weeks, and Moore's athletic ability and bone-rattling hits make him a natural fit for trying to lock down Gronk.
This is going to be a fun matchup to watch, and one I hope goes very well for the Falcons. If Gronk doesn't play, this gets easier.
Julio Jones vs. Aqib Talib
The Falcons haven't met a secondary that could contain Jones thus far this year. They'll hope to keep the good times rolling against New England.
The Pats have a very solid front seven and an underrated secondary, but it's not necessarily a great secondary. The exception is Talib, a sometimes shutdown corner who is certainly capable of making life difficult for Jones. Given that Matt Ryan is already having to unload the ball quickly, anything that takes his top target out of commission for even a stretch of the game could have a huge impact.
But hell, Jones is still going to have a huge game. He's too talented not to. The question is, can Talib do enough to force Ryan to look elsewhere and perhaps run into trouble? The answer is (one hopes) no.
Chandler Jones vs. Lamar Holmes/Sam Baker
Chandler Jones is off to a fast starter with three sacks. He'll either be matched up against Lamar Holmes, who was up and down a week ago before ending in ignominy, or a gimpy Sam Baker.
Neither matchup favors the Falcons. Holmes looked fine to these eyes until late in the game, but the team deliberately adjusted their entire gameplan to have Matt Ryan getting rid of the ball faster with Holmes on the left side and Jeremy Trueblood on the right. That's not exactly a huge vote of confidence.
Let's hope whoever is manning the left side can handle the talented young pass rusher.
Mike Smith vs. Bill Belichick
One future Hall of Fame coach against one of the better coaches in the league today. This ought to be interesting.
Belichick has papered over talent deficiencies of his own making and injuries, getting enough out of his team to start off the season 3-0. Smitty has made some questionable calls and gotten a ton of flak for it, and his Falcons are now 1-2. In a more typical year, we'd be talking about both of these guys as Coach of the Year candidates, but this hasn't been a typical year.
Smith has made some questionable decisions this year, and those have arguably cost the Falcons close games in their two losses. Belichick, meanwhile, seems to have pushed all the right buttons. Given how close this game is likely to be, the coaching is going to matter a great deal. Let's hope Smitty's got trump cards.
Your matchups to watch?