It's tough to get legitimately excited about a game against a 1-4 team from the AFC in the middle of an NFL season, but quite frankly, you should be.
That's because this Falcons team needs a course correction after the Washington and New Orleans games, where the ground game excelled but the passing game puttered, and the defense gave up a few too many of those eyeroll-inducing long third downs. If this team is going to hang around in the NFC South and make noise in the playoffs, it has to be able to step up its game after bouts of adversity. We've seen that they're capable after the Cowboys game in particular, but how you respond after your first loss of the season says a lot about your football team.
Unsurprisingly, the Titans and Falcons have similar paths to victory this Sunday, albeit with vastly different personnel with which to realize them. Let's take a closer look.
The Titans' defense has been shaky up front but stellar against the pass, which makes the gameplan here obvious. Compounding the problem, the Falcons' passing attack hasn't been the fearsome unit that hung 40-plus points on the Houston Texans defense, or even the one that was so instrumental in rallying the team from a four score deficit against the Cowboys.
That could easily change against Tennessee, but the most obvious path to victory here remains a steady dose of Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones. The former has been rolling like no other running back in the NFL over the last few weeks and should be able to at least make a dent against Tennessee. Julio has had some time to rest up and could easily destroy the Titans' cornerbacks if he's fully healthy once more. There'll be some Tevin Coleman mixed in to the ground game, and Jacob Tamme should be a factor against a Titans defense that hasn't been very successful when it comes to stopping tight ends.
Defensively, Atlanta has to be able to buck a recent trend and contain a tight end and a pass catching back. This week, it's the capable Delanie Walker and the occasionally capable Dexter McCluster who loom as the biggest threats, particularly if a limited Marcus Mariota is going to be in the game and dinking and dunking his way to victory. Otherwise, things are just status quo, with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford containing the Titan's top receiving options, and the run defense continuing to string together strong performances against one of the most lackluster ground games they've yet faced.
Tennessee is going to have to pass its way to victory. Their ground game isn't nearly as impressive as the Saints', and the Falcons bottled New Orleans up to the tune of less than three yards per carry. With David Cobb unlikely to return and give the Titans an effective power complement, they're going to be a little one-dimensional.
Whether Mariota or Mettenberger plays, they need to try hard to exploit the Falcons' chronic weakness over the middle, particularly because Delanie Walker is a legitimately talented tight end. I'm positive Atlanta will have added some new wrinkles to the defense, but this isn't a one week fix, and Walker will probably eat. The Titans will be reliant on getting him and their receiving corps open early and picking up chunks of yardage.
With their starting center out and a so-so offensive line in general, the Titans will also need to eliminate sacks. Marcus Mariota's mobility would have helped, but he'll be gimpy even if he plays, and Mettenberger is effectively a statue. The Falcons might actually get the pass rush on track this week.
On the other side of the ball, Tennessee's run defense has to finally contain Devonta Freeman, something every other defense he's faced thus far in 2015 has struggled with mightily. If they can do that—and the evidence doesn't suggest it—then they'll hope to follow Washington's blueprint and force a couple of ugly turnovers from Matt Ryan, and to clamp down hard on the Falcons' many (if merely so-so thus far) receiving options. With Julio Jones not even listed on the injury report this week, they obviously need to throw a ton of resources at stopping him, but as always, I'm not convinced they'll be able to do so for very long.
As you can see, these two teams are looking at similar paths, but the degree of difficulty for the Titans is much higher. Let's hope that translates into a Falcons victory on Sunday.