Arthur Smith’s celebrations were real, but the muted tone he struck in some of his postgame comments after Sunday was worth noting. The Falcons’ head coach knows he has a better football team than he did a year ago and is hellbent on that team continuing to show progress, so while a win was extremely welcome, they’re on to Cleveland.
That’d be the Browns, who are mostly surging despite being without suspended quarterback Deshaun Watson and possibly Myles Garrett, who was just involved in a scary single-car wreck but seems to be okay. Smith knows that there’s a good team that can punish Atlanta’s defensive weaknesses and give this impressive offensive line trouble coming to town, and building on the first win of the season by putting together another impressive showing against Cleveland is the priority.
This will be yet another interesting test for the Falcons, who have played in three straight games that came down to the wire and have shown some impressive resilience along the way. This time out, they’ll face a tough defense, the strongest ground game they’ve seen thus far by a wide margin, and a capable passing game keyed by savvy veteran quarterback Jacoby Brissett. This is a capable football team that will test Atlanta’s ability to play mistake-free football and stop the run, in particular, and give us another look at just how much progress the Falcons are making. If Atlanta can pull off the upset, perhaps we’ll see Smith celebrate in earnest.
Let’s talk about what we all need to know about the matchup ahead.
Falcons - Browns comparison
The Browns’ offense is sort of an ideal-case Falcons offense, at least for the moment, in that they have an incredibly potent rushing attack, capable enough passing attack, and commit very few big mistakes. The defense is just better, though they’ve been uneven to this point, but we all know Atlanta has a few big additions to go before they can field the kind of ferocious pass rush and overall strength defensively Cleveland brings to bear, but hopefully they’re well on their way.
The Browns are a better football team, in other words, but one that still has an attackable defense and not quite an elite passing game. On an off day—and/or an on day from Atlanta—they are beatable.
How the Browns have changed
The biggest addition for the Browns won’t take the field Sunday. With the Falcons seemingly closing in on getting Deshaun Watson, the Browns swooped in at the last moment with a monster fully-guaranteed salary to land him. That left the Falcons awkwardly explaining their interest, which they called exploratory despite overwhelming reporting to the contrary, while the Browns held a series of hideously awkward press conferences while Watson kept stepping in it over and over again. He was ultimately suspended 11 games by the league, and Atlanta moved ahead with noted good guy Marcus Mariota and rookie Desmond Ridder.
All that means little for this game, because Watson is suspended, which leaves Jacoby Brissett under center. The 29-year-old landed in Cleveland to back up (and provide insurance for) Watson with Baker Mayfield headed to Carolina, and he’s been marvelous as a fill-in thus far, showing command of the offense and avoiding costly mistakes. He’s a big reason that the Browns are 2-1 right now, and should hold his own until Watson returns. Unfortunately for the Falcons, he also picked them apart the last and only time Atlanta saw him, throwing for 300 yards and two touchdown with the Colts back in 2019.
Beyond quarterback, the Browns also made a big trade for Amari Cooper that seems like it happened three years ago, adding another playmaker at wide receiver. They traded linebacker Mack Wilson for pass rusher Chase Winovich, added help on both lines with Taven Bryan and Isaac Rochell on the defensive side and center Ethan Pocic on the offensive side, and brought back a few key free agents. While they didn’t have any first or second round picks to play with, they scooped up intriguing receiver David Bell, cornerback Martin Emerson, kicker Cade York, and high-upside options like defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey and running back Jerome Ford in the draft, as well. A good team largely got better, but they did release the always-great center J.C. Tretter.
It would take a long time to describe all the ways the Browns have changed since the Falcons saw them last in the regular season, given that it was all the way back in 2018. Suffice to say they’ve turned over most of the roster, the coaching staff, and front office since then, so this will bear little resemblance to the team we saw back then.
What lies ahead
Fresh off an important win against a lackluster Seahawks squad, the Falcons face a stiffer test this week. After having seen Atlanta play for three weeks, I’m confident they can at the very least give the Browns a damn good game.
Unfortunately, this is a damn good football team, too. Everett Glaze has taken a closer look at the Browns this week and warned me against getting overly optimistic about their chances Sunday, a smart note that I’m going to partially ignore, and it’s because Cleveland is stuffed with talent. Brissett is good enough to keep the passing game rolling, the ground game is one of the best in the league, and the defense is studded with talent, especially up front. This may not be the best team Atlanta has played—that’d be the defending Super Bowl champion Rams—but they’re light years better than the increasingly listless Saints and the Seahawks, and they’re playing well enough to offer a similar challenge to Los Angeles. The Falcons have been fun, interesting, and evolving over the past three weeks, but this will be an excellent test of whether they’ve cleaned up their worst tendencies or not, because those tendencies will doom them against Cleveland if not.
A win here would put Atlanta firmly in the mix in an extremely gloomy NFC South headlined by an alarmingly plastic-y Tom Brady and a surprisingly shaky Buccaneers team, while a loss would drop them down with (in all likelihood) the Panthers and Saints. They won’t be down and out entirely either way, but what really matters is the quality of the performance at home on Sunday. Fresh off a two game road swing and an emotionally-charged win, the chances of a letdown performance against a quality team are definitely there, so Atlanta will have to prove they can string good games together. Proving is all this team can do right now, and thankfully they seem hellbent on doing it.
Win or lose, this Falcons team is likely to continue to show the incremental but important progress they’ve made. Let’s see if they can give the Browns a great game on Sunday.