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What to know about Falcons - Bills in Week 17

This is going to be a very difficult matchup for Atlanta.

NFL: OCT 01 Bills at Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Growing up, I played Tecmo Super Bowl, NFL Quarterback Club and Madden almost daily against my best friend, a Buffalo Bills fan. We had the kind of epic rivalry in those games that those two teams can’t replicate in real life, given that they play once every four seasons, but it was fun to pilot two teams who are impossibly star-crossed in real life to multiple championships even so.

I thought of all those old games while writing this because so often in Madden, my friend would build a Bills team with a scrambling, cannon-armed quarterback and a passing attack that was almost impossible to stop, and that’s roughly what the Falcons are about to square off against. In a weird, parity-dominated season, the Bills are unquestionably one of the best teams in the NFL, and triumphing over them would be one of the year’s biggest upsets not only for the Falcons but leaguewide. If the Bills hadn’t already lost to the Jaguars, somehow, it would be an even bigger surprise.

As I wrote this morning, this is Atlanta’s last opportunity to beat a true contender, something they have yet to do in 2021. It’ll take their most superlative effort of the year to get there, and they’ll need to beat a quarterback who you’d hate to play against in Madden to do it.

Let’s jump in to what you need to know for Week 17.

Falcons - Bills rankings

Falcons - Bills comparison

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 7-8 25 25 16 31 28 24 23 22 20 22
Bills 9-6 3 6 7 11 3 1 1 17 3 15

This is hilariously lopsided on paper, but that’s been true often this year. The problem for Atlanta is that the Bills, despite their good-but-not-great record, are looking like one of the best teams in the NFL as the year closes out.

If the Bills have a weakness, it’s running the ball and stopping the run, and neither of those are fatal weaknesses. It makes sense for Atlanta to try to establish the run early on and get a rhythm going, but the bottom line here is pretty clear: The Falcons are going to be outmatched. They’ll need the Bills to be off their game and be on the top of their own game to snatch a victory away on the road here.

One of the most interesting subplots of this game for me will be the respective pass defenses. The Falcons have come up with timely turnovers again and again over the past 11 weeks, the current longest turnover streak in the NFL, and a couple off of Josh Allen and company seems like the best way to turn the tide here. The Bills pass defense is unreal, meanwhile, and the Falcons passing game has swung between “borderline useless” and “competent” for weeks now. They’ll need better pass protection and a really crisp effort from Matt Ryan and company to have a shot.

Whether we’ll get the Falcons’ best—because that’s what it’ll take—remains to be seen.

How the Bills have changed

They haven’t changed a ton compared to last year, but why would they? The Bills were a very good team a year ago and were looking for growth in 2021, so they largely kept their nucleus intact and just tried to add to it.

Their biggest moves were adding wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (42 catches, 626 yards, four touchdowns) and backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky. They mostly got busy re-signing their own free agents after going 13-3 last year and losing in the AFC Conference Championship Game, though they did lose returner Andre Roberts and defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson.

Their draft class has made an immediate impact. Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham, their top two picks, have combined for 4.5 sacks and both look very promising for a retooling Bills defensive front. Tackle and third round pick Spencer Brown became a full-time starter in Week 4 and has held up pretty well in that role, while sixth round defensive back Damar Hamlin and offensive lineman Tommy Doyle have chipped in on special teams. If Rousseau, Basham and Brown hit, the Bills will have snagged three starters in the trenches, and we all know how important quality play there is as Falcons fans.

If we’re talking about how the Bills have changed since the last time they played Atlanta, it’s a very different story. Back in 2017 when the Bills slipped past the Falcons 23-17, they had Tyrod Taylor under center, LeSean McCoy as their lead back, tight end Charles Clay as their most formidable receiving option and a drastically different roster and Sean McDermott just beginning his Buffalo coaching career. About the only familiar faces on Sunday will be Micah Hyde, who had two interceptions in that game, and veteran pass rusher Jerry Hughes.

What to know

Nothing short of the best effort the Falcons have put together this year is going to get the win here, and it’s going to have to be the team’s best effort by a country mile.

Beating the Bills will have to mean some sort of success on the ground, in all likelihood, because this is arguably the league’s top pass defense. Arthur Smith is going to want to achieve some balance and given Atlanta’s pass catching options and shaky offensive line, this team throwing 40 times is going to be a recipe for disaster. The Falcons can’t afford to burn two downs on unproductive runs, though, because Buffalo boasts one of the best third down defenses in the league. Oh, and they’re allowing a score on only 28.7% of drives against them, which is best in the NFL. Atlanta’s going to count on being able to grind out some long, exhausting drives with a handful of the explosive plays Kyle Pitts can provide and hope that’s enough.

It’ll only be enough if the defense is up to snuff, and that’s a big question mark. The Falcons have allowed the seventh-highest number of rushing yards from opposing quarterbacks, and Josh Allen absolutely loves to run. The Falcons are tied for third in passing touchdowns allowed, and Josh Allen is third in the NFL in passing touchdowns. The biggest thing Atlanta has going for them is that they’ve yet to allow a 40+ yard play, which may well matter because this Bills offense is perfectly capable of huge explosive plays. Without much of a pass rush to speak of, the pressure to stop the Bills passing attack in particular is going to fall heavily on the team’s secondary and linebackers, who have one of their tallest tasks of the season.

I’m not trying to sound dour here—any given Sunday!—but we should be prepared for this one to be ugly and hope it winds up being unexpectedly beautiful. The Bills are one of the best teams in the NFL and are back to playing like it after a listless stretch, and the Falcons haven’t shown up to a game against one of the league’s brightest lights and stunned them at any point in 2021. It’ll take the effort of the year to get the win here, and I’ll daydream about getting it until I can’t anymore. Hopefully that doesn’t happen by halftime Sunday.