The long-awaited changes came last Sunday against the Saints, with Desmond Ridder entering the lineup at quarterback and (more surprisingly) Troy Andersen taking over at one of the inside linebacker spots. For all that, you could be forgiven for a sense of deja vu, as the passing game sputtered, the ground game excelled, the defense fell a bit short, and the team once again lost a low-scoring one-score affair.
The Falcons don’t have much time to dwell on that. They have a short week and they’re still on the road, heading north to face the Ravens in Baltimore on a frigid Saturday. We don’t know if Lamar Jackson will be back or not, which would of course determine whether this is a tough matchup or a nigh-impossible one, but we do know this is yet another big challenge for Ridder and the Falcons.
There are very few expectations the rest of the way and even fewer for this game, I think, but we still want to see the Falcons improve and challenge a tough AFC squad. Let’s take a look at the matchup ahead, which is hurtling toward us at alarming speed.
Falcons - Ravens comparison
There’s a good reason to pencil this one in as a loss: The Ravens are a vastly superior football team. Loaded with talent on defense, with a cheat code under center and playmakers, Baltimore is in the top half of the league on offense and the top ten or so teams on defense, and their record reflects that. This is going to be one of the more difficult matchups of the season, and there’s no sugarcoating that.
Baltimore’s offense is a source of real consternation for that fanbase right now, as Greg Roman remains one of the more head-scratching play callers in football. Getting Lamar Jackson back would give them a major boost, but if they’re rolling with Tyler Huntley under center you’ll be looking at plenty of runs and a passing attack that will hope to connect on a few big plays, much like the ideal version of the Atlanta attack. The ideal is likely Huntley throwing 30 passes, as he did a week ago, because it’s not the best way for this offense to operate.
The defense is pretty deadly. They’ll have Ridder under some duress on Sunday, and the run defense is once of the best in the NFL, as it always is. The Falcons have run against just about everybody this year, but this is yet another big challenge for one of the league’s best ground games. Add in one of the best kickers in football in Justin Tucker and this is a team that, while they’ve been far from perfect, are good enough to run away with this one if they’re playing well in the cold.
Atlanta does one thing very well: Run. They ought to have another quality day on the ground with the way Tyler Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson, and these blockers are clicking, even with the test before them, and leaning on the run is the best way to grind out a potentially low-scoring game and try to get a win. A quality Ravens pass rush and solid pass defense plus Ridder under center means a likely quiet game through the air, though I’ll be looking for and hoping for a hike in production over the mouse whisper quiet day against New Orleans. If the defense has to face Jackson it’s going to be tough sledding, but this is not exactly a tremendous Ravens offense, especially with injuries piling up.
How the Ravens have changed since the last time Atlanta saw them
The last time these two teams met was an early December day back in 2018, so you’d expect significant changes in the last five years. The truth is that with the same head coach, quarterback, top tight end, and a few other stars, this is a different team but not a wholly unfamiliar one.
Lamar Jackson is obviously an improved player since then, when he was still finding his footing in the NFL, and he’s now working with a drastically different receiving corps. Mark Andrews is still in Baltimore as a top option, but none of the receivers he was throwing to back then are, and Sammy Watkins is a brand new addition. The offensive line has also turned over aside from Ronnie Stanley, the running back group is different outside of Gus Edwards, and the defense is characteristically excellent but only features a couple of starters from that 2018 squad in Tyus Bowser and Marlon Humphrey.
This is still a team with an identity you’re familiar with: They like to run and can run, their passing game essentially hinges on Jackson and Andrews and whoever else is healthy and feeling frisky in the receiving corps, and the Baltimore defense is a force to be reckoned with. They have just two losing seasons since John Harbaugh became the head coach in 2008, so why make major changes?
What lies ahead
The Ravens are reeling a bit and may well be down Lamar Jackson and other key players on offense, which could make this a low-scoring affair. Bluntly, though, this matchup is not a good one for Atlanta.
The Falcons have lost five of their past six games, scoring over 18 points just once in that span, and have turned in some truly impressive performances on the ground that haven’t added up to a whole lot of points. Against a very good Ravens defense, it seems unlikely they’ll manage better than the low 20s on a very good day, and they’ll have to contend with growing pains at quarterback and frigid temperatures to get there. Defensively, they simply can’t stop the run well enough for me to feel great about holding J.K. Dobbins and company in check.
If the Ravens weren’t a strong team in their own right, I’d like Atlanta’s chances of muddling through, holding on until late, and maybe sneaking something out for a change. Given that even with Lamar Jackson the Ravens have a great rushing attack and mediocre-at-worst passing attack with Tyler Huntley, plus their quality defense and special teams, it’s going to take an off day from Baltimore and a big day from the Falcons to really stand a chance of pulling this off.
Expect both teams to lean on the ground game—unless Greg Roman insists on throwing it 30 times again, which will be a boost for the Falcons—and the team that makes fewer mistakes to be the one that emerges from this game with a victory. I’m rooting hard for the upset because it would make for a damn fun Christmas Eve, but I would advise you to go into this matchup with modest expectations.