This game will be won either by a better-than-anticipated defensive effort, or it will be won by whichever offense can outgun the other. Pretty simple, and likely pretty fun to watch.
The Falcons can’t afford to make costly mistakes against a defense that doesn’t rank among the league’s best, and they certainly can’t afford to let one of the league’s best quarterbacks pick them apart. With offenses in mind, here are three of the top matchups to pay attention to Sunday. We’ll re-visit these matchups early next week.
Keanu Neal versus Hunter Henry
There will be a few guys tasked with trying to cover Hunter Henry, and no matter how well they handle that, he’ll probably wind up being one of San Diego’s leading receivers. The key is to mitigate his impact on the game, and that means Keanu Neal will be busy.
Neal has been extremely impressive as a rookie, and already looks like the player Dan Quinn envisioned when the Falcons surprised many by taking him in the first round. Neal’s coverage chops and physicality make him well-suited to match up against tight ends, and if he can hang with Greg Olsen, he can probably hang with Henry. The problem is that the rookie tight end is fast and physical (ha) and has had success even against capable defenses, and Neal can’t draw him all day, which means Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and Ricardo Allen will have to work against him at times. The Falcons may even want to consider giving Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford some chances at him, because stopping Henry has to be considered priority number one.
Julio Jones versus San Diego’s secondary
The Chargers’ secondary has suffered injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, and they’re going to have to slow down Julio Jones, who popped off against Richard Sherman just a week ago. Good luck.
With no Taylor Gabriel, the Falcons will still spread the ball around plenty, but if Julio is allowed to run free, Atlanta’s offense can basically move at will. San Diego’s going to have to dedicate two defenders on nearly every play to have a prayer of slowing him down, and we’ll just have to see how effective it is.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman versus San Diego’s defense
The ground game has been bottled up twice this season, and it’s not a coincidence that the Falcons have lost both times. Atlanta’s a team with two of the best backs in the NFL, and both players are integral to both the ground game and passing game.
If Freeman can eat—20 or so carries, 100-plus yards—the Falcons are in terrific shape. If Coleman picks up another 5-10 carries and can have some success catching the ball, the Falcons might blow right past the 35 points I’ve projected for them. So much depends on how San Diego’s defense rises to the occasion.