When you look at this game on paper, your first thought is likely a grim one. The way these two teams have been playing, the Falcons look completely overmatched.
Fortunately, they don't play the games on paper, unless you're into Dungeons & Dragons. This team has underachieved thanks to many issues, but the important note is that they are at least capable of playing better football. The Ravens, meanwhile, will be missing two offensive line starters. It's not much, but it's something. What I'm trying to get at, even though I expect the Falcons to lose, is that this is a potentially winnable game if they can actually play quality football for four quarters.
Here are the matchups that are likely to matter for this Falcons-Ravens game.
Antone Smith vs. Ravens Defense
You're down Harry Douglas. Devin Hester doesn't look 100% healthy. Roddy White has had a disappointing campaign, something he's acknowledged himself. Julio Jones hasn't been Superman every week. Levine Toilolo has been a non-factor, essentially.
Add in offensive line woes and you've got a recipe for a middling passing attack, which is just what the Falcons offered up a week ago against the Bears. To stand any chance against this Ravens team, with its stout front seven and athletic secondary, you need to take heat off Julio and give John Harbaugh and his defensive staff something to think about.
Antone Smith is the key to doing so. His wheels virtually ensure he'll break a long gain or score if he gets into open space, and the Falcons can utilize him in creative ways to mess with the Ravens defense. Put him in the slot, split him out wide, give him screens, hit him on the sideline quickly or even (novel idea) run with him. The important thing is that you give Antone the ball early, get him going and make the Ravens think twice about ignoring him in favor of a more established receiving option.
The Falcons have been all-too-reluctant to meaningfully increase his touches thus far, but against a defense as tough as the Ravens', they may have no choice.
Haloti Ngata vs. Peter Konz
Ngata won't always be right over Konz, of course, but Jon Asamoah and Justin Blalock are capable pass protectors who can at least hold the behemoth at bay. Konz is...not.
The former Badger has been better this season than he was during a disastrous 2013 campaign, but he still hasn't been good. Ngata can be a monster, capable of occupying blocks, stopping the run and collapsing the pocket from the middle, and his long arms mean Ryan has to be careful about trying to throw over him. If Konz can stonewall Ngata, the line stands a puncher's chance of keeping Ryan alive and keeping the ground game purring.
Honorable mention goes to Elvis Dumervil, who has been feasting on opposing quarterbacks all year. We'll have to hope the tackles are up to stopping him, but I can't say I'm overly optimistic they will for the entire game.
Steve Smith & Torrey Smith vs. Desmond Trufant & Robert Alford
We turn our eyes to defense, where a pair of Smiths will be critical for the Ravens. Steve Smith has quite simply destroyed opposing cornerbacks this season, posting the 10th highest reception total and 5th highest yardage total in the NFL thus far. Torrey Smith hasn't been nearly as productive, but he's a true deep threat.
The Falcons will need to successfully hold them both in check to slow down a productive Ravens offense. That task falls on Desmond Trufant, who has been excellent again minus dropped picks and a couple of glaring communication problems in the secondary, and Robert Alford, who has been a trouble spot for the defense the last couple of weeks. Alford has issues with discipline, in particular, and if he's matched up with Steve Smith it'll be a rough one for the young cornerback.
Alford needs to turn the corner in a big way, while Trufant just needs to be a bit better than he has been. Let's hope they can contain the Smiths.
Falcons Front Seven vs. Justin Forsett
While the corners are doing work against Torrey and Steve, the Falcons' front seven has to contain Justin Forsett. This should be easier than it has been, but Forsett is lighting the world on fire thus far in 2014.
Forsett has long had a reputation as a scatback, albeit a successful one, and he had never exceeded 118 carries in a season in his previous seven seasons. Now 29, Forsett is having a breakout campaign on par with Antone Smith's, though perhaps not quite as impressive on a per-touch basis. On just 64 carries, he has 408 yards and 3 touchdowns, as well as 23 receptions. He's been the most dangerous back on the Ravens by a wide margin.
Because Forsett specializes in speed and agility, he's exactly the kind of player the Falcons need to fear. The run defense hasn't been overly stout this season, to put it mildly, and speedy players like Giovanni Bernard, Jerrick McKinnon, and Pierre Thomas have been plaguing them all throughout the season. Clamping down hard on Forsett forces Flacco to pass more behind an offensive line likely missing two of its starters, which could only help an anemic Falcons pass rush.
What are the matchups you'll be watching?