The Falcons will take the field in their throwback uniforms and hope for a throwback result against the Chargers, a team they beat in five of their first six meetings. To get there, they’ll need to take every lesson learned along the way through their first eight games and apply them against a formidable but injury-wracked opponent.
The Chargers are maybe the most snakebitten team in football in terms of injuries, and fans here have sometimes fondly referred to them as Falcons West because of their bizarre losing habits. This is still a squad with their franchise quarterback under center, a formidable defense led by a terrific young secondary, and a running back who is a major pest both as a runner and a receiver, assuming any of those players are healthy. That’s enough to ensure a long afternoon for a Falcons team that isn’t sharp.
Here’s what you should know about the game ahead.
Falcons - Chargers comparison
Think of the Chargers as a bizarro Falcons team. They’re not built to be stingy in terms of scoring instead of yards—ignore the fact that the Falcons aren’t either and take Dean Pees and his rants about not giving a damn about yards at face value—and they have a high-end passing game and low-end rushing attack. They’re bad against the run on defense and good against the pass. They are the opposite of the Falcons in many key ways.
On paper, they’re a much better football team, but they don’t play these games on paper. Atlanta’s putrid defense is still going to be challenged, but with no Keenan Allen and no Mike Williams, that passing attack is neutered a bit for the Chargers. Atlanta’s true strength—running the ball—is the thing the Chargers are among the very worst in the NFL at defending against. None of this is to suggest the Falcons will have it easy, but they’re catching Los Angeles at the right time and have the right tools to take away the victory, should they use them effectively.
How the Chargers have changed
Tom Telesco and company do a very nice job with this roster. The Falcons last saw the Chargers in December 2020, and there are many familiar faces from that squad on the offense in particular, with Justin Herbert, Austin Ekeler, Mike Williams, and Keenan Allen being prominent parts of that squad. Since then, though, the Chargers have made real upgrades elsewhere.
Start with the offensive line. Rashawn Slater is hurt but is a huge upgrade on Sam Tevi, the team’s left tackle from 2020, and Jamaree Salyer is a nice fill-in who should be a massive upgrade over Forrest Lamp at left guard when he can return to that spot. A healthy Corey Linsley is better than Dan Feeney, Zion Johnson will be better than what the team had in the last matchup, and Trey Pipkins is a bit of a downgrade on Bryan Bulaga. Overall, the offensive line is in better shape, even if it’s far from a dominant run-blocking group.
On defense, the Chargers had a formidable unit in 2020 but have, I think, upgraded on the whole. Asante Samuel Jr. is a special young cornerback and an upgrade on (hey, look) Casey Hayward, Derwin James is a bright light who is an improvement on Rayshawn Jenkins, and you can never go wrong adding Khalil Mack.
The biggest factor in this game might be injury, as the Chargers won’t have players like Joey Bosa, Williams, and Allen who were impactful in the last matchup. Still, a good team with an improving (when healthy) roster is what Atlanta’s going to see.
What lies ahead
Atlanta keeps catching breaks, as Eric Robinson noted on Falcoholic Live the other night, in terms of the health of their opponents. The 49ers had their entire starting line out, the Panthers traded away Christian McCaffrey and were missing a couple of key cogs, and the Chargers are going to be down several key pieces, including two kickers. The Falcons are not good enough to assume that confers some major advantage just yet, but it certainly helps.
In this one, Los Angeles might be down two starting receivers, their starting running back, their best pass rusher, a starting offensive lineman, and two kickers, among other players. That kind of decimation is going to have an impact on how they play on Sunday, while the Falcons are relatively healthy and coming off an exhausting win. Atlanta’s secondary woes are going to be a factor here regardless, but a banged-up Chargers team is less of a challenge.
As I noted earlier this week in my articles on the teams’ offenses and defenses, Atlanta’s also set up pretty well to attack this Chargers team. Their run defense allows more yards per carry than any other team in the league, they’ve struggled to stop teams from scoring of late, and they will be down at least a couple of high-end receiving options, making it harder for Los Angeles to exploit Atlanta’s most significant weakness.
The Falcons have a rare chance to go above .500, something they haven’t had the opportunity to consider often in recent years, and something they certainly haven’t actually done in recent years. They’re catching a Chargers team that’s a little weaker and more injured than expected, and at their best, Atlanta’s good enough to win this one. We just haven’t seen enough of that these past two weeks, especially on defense, to know that’s going to happen.