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What to know about Falcons - Patriots on Thursday Night Football

Atlanta has a quick turnaround against a rapidly improving New England team.

Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

When you lose by 40 points, as Arthur Smith suggested yesterday, a quick turnaround might not be the worst thing. It gives you less time to dwell on one of the worst losses in franchise history and a chance to prove that you’re, you know, not quite that bad. The opportunity to earn an unexpected win on Thursday night and wave away some of the gathering storm clouds around this football team is something Smith and company would obviously love to take advantage of.

It’s unfortunate that their opponent this week would not appear to be amenable to rolling over and letting Atlanta get a feel-good win. The Patriots have won four straight and have crushed their opponents in three of those contests, and they boast both a capable offense and terrific defense. The Falcons have at least one major injury that will likely impact the outcome of this one, and their offense has swung wildly between capable and useless, while the defense has been pretty consistently incapable. I never count out these Falcons—well, almost never—but this one’s not going to be easy.

Let’s take a closer look.

Falcons - Patriots comparison

Falcons vs. Patriots

Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Falcons 4-5 25 25 15 29 31 22 16 21 26 22
Patriots 6-4 7 15 14 15 2 6 8 14 5 21

This looks bad on paper, and that’s without the news that Cordarrelle Patterson might miss this game. The Falcons have been able to overcome shaky defense and and up-and-down offense to hang tough and eke out a few tough wins, but they have yet to do so against a team as good as the Patriots.

The Patriots have a good offense, though not a great one. They’re stocked up with a host of useful if unspectacular weapons that form a strong whole, and they’ve largely been able to stay balanced and effective throughout the past few games. That’s helped by an offensive line that has played very well, as you’d expect a Patriots line to do, and so their offense is annoyingly capable.

The defense is the star of the show here, though. They’re one of the best in the NFL with a strong pass rush, ability to create takeaways, stingy red zone defense and top ten passing defense. Their run defense is good but not truly spectacular, but obviously the Falcons are not in an excellent position to take advantage of that.

What advantages do the Falcons have here? Reader, I don’t like to type these things, but it doesn’t look like Atlanta has any. They’re not running the ball particularly well—though I’m hopeful Mike Davis and Wayne Gallman can at least get something going—and their passing game is going to have to impress with no Patterson and a smothered Pitts. That’s a big ask for a team that has struggled to get its receivers open against the exact kind of heavy man coverage the Patriots are going to throw at them. Defensively, Atlanta doesn’t have enough pieces to effectively cover everybody the Patriots can utilize and don’t have the pass rush to rattle Mac Jones, though after the past couple of weeks I’m willing to bet they can at least slow New England’s rushing attack. If it comes down to Younghoe Koo’s leg I’d trust him over Nick Folk, but obviously it doesn’t seem like that’s likely.

The Falcons will win more games this year—hell, they could win this one—but it will take a lot longer to fix the foundation and make this into a team that can be expected to beat good teams. This thread was illuminating.

Comparing these two teams is just sad, in other words. Let’s move on for a moment.

How the Patriots have changed

The biggest change is obviously Mac Jones at quarterback. The Patriots quarterbacks of yesteryear are now in the NFC South with Cam Newton re-joining the Panthers, and Jones is turning in a nice rookie season when he’s not trying to break Brian Burns’ ankle. The Patriots appear to have their next franchise signal caller, which means they’re right back in the mix in the AFC East.

The Patriots did a lot to upgrade their roster in general this offseason, as you’d expect for a team that disappointed in 2020 and is eager to prove Bill Belichick is not lost without Tom Brady. They added pass rusher Matt Judon (9.5 sacks), wide receivers Kendrick Bourne (33 catches, 520 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Nelson Agholor (24 catches, 356 yards, 2 touchdowns) and tight ends Hunter Henry (31 catches, 353 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Jonnu Smith (21 catches, 193 yards, 1 touchdown) and useful linemen like Devin Godchaux on the defensive line and Ted Karras on the offensive line. Their offense has really rounded into shape and that defense can be lethal, with Judon proving to be an absurdly great addition as a pass rusher.

That was just free agency for a team flush with cash. While Jones was the headliner, Atlanta also added terrific young defensive lineman Christian Barmore out of Alabama and capable running back Rhamondre Stevenson in April, among others. The end result is a good team with a lot of quality young players, and a team that appears to be ready to be a true contender in the AFC earlier than I would have anticipated.

Given that they seemed adrift and lousy without Tom Brady throughout most of last year, this is an impressive turnaround. It’s exactly what we’ll be hoping for from the Falcons in 2021, albeit with a familiar veteran quarterback still likely to be under center in Atlanta.

What to know

Yeesh, this one looks tough.

Looking at this game even a month ago, you could see the outline of a solid team, but one that was 2-4 and clearly had limitations. Unfortunately for the Falcons, they’re not getting that team, but they are getting one that has won four games in a row by a combined score of 150-50. Atlanta’s had a couple of nice wins in their last four games, but they’re not close to playing that kind of football, and the Patriots knocked off the Browns and Chargers in that span.

Atlanta’s path to victory is straightforward to type and incredibly difficult to actually do: Slow down New England’s quality rushing attack, force Mac Jones into a couple of major mistakes, and get the passing game back on track and humming again. It’s the blueprint that worked for them against New England and was really their only prayer against Dallas. It’s also a boring, all-encompassing prescription for beating most opponents left on their schedule, but at a more basic level there is no one magic bullet for beating a Patriots team that’s playing well more or less across the board. The problem is that New England is tough defensively and hitting their stride offensively, and Atlanta is fresh off a 43-3 pasting and would have to turn things around dramatically to pull this off.

What you should know, then, is that you should probably be bracing for this game, because even if the Falcons do pull off what would be a very impressive win, it’s unlikely to be a fun road there. New England can and will put pressure on Matt Ryan, and they can and will put a heavy emphasis on stopping Kyle Pitts and forcing others to beat them. Offensively, they are balanced and efficient, with an increasingly effective red zone offense that allowed them to absolutely beat up on the Browns last week. If Atlanta’s pass rush is punchless and their pass protection has lapses, they’ll fall behind again early and may not be able to dig their way back out.

The hope is that you catch an overconfident Patriots team on a short week and they’re unusually sluggish, while the Falcons use that humiliating defeat as motivation and show up playing their best football of the year. I wouldn’t expect that, to put it mildly, but hope is what this car is going to run on this week.