The biggest win of the season is in the books. With a victory over the New Orleans Saints in Week 12, the Atlanta Falcons moved to 3-0 against the NFC South in 2023 and first place in the division. Now the next challenge arises, in the form of staying perched atop the NFC South.
The next obstacle is a road game against the New York Jets. A would-be AFC East powerhouse, the Jets lost Aaron Rodgers a few snaps into the first game of the season and have been trying to grind out wins with one of the league’s tougher defenses and an offense predicated on severe quarterback bumbling, Breece Hall brilliance, and a hope that the offense is just good enough not to doom the team. That has not been a hugely successful formula.
For Atlanta, going on the road and testing their offense against the Jets defense is a good way to know how much of the post-bye work they did against the Saints is sustainable, especially the (mostly) crisper passing. Going against the woeful Jets offense and tightening up on the open field lapses while maintaining a strong red zone presence would also build on the team’s success against the Saints. Most importantly of all, a win would move the Falcons back to .500 and might give them a more commanding lead in the division, depending on whether the Saints can beat the Lions (I hope not) and whether the Buccaneers fall victim to the Panthers post-firing bounce (I hope so).
Here’s what you should know about Sunday’s game.
Falcons - Jets head-to-head comparison
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The recipe for success in this game could not be more evident. The Falcons remain a middle-of-the-road team in so many ways, with a fairly stingy pass defense and their now-flourishing run game looking like their true strengths. Against a Jets team that forces a lot of turnovers and is very stingy through the air while ranking as one of the worst run defenses in the league, Atlanta just needs to pound the rock and pick their spots passing.
Against the Jets offense, the mission should be to always have eyes on Garrett Wilson, put the clamps on tight end Tyler Conklin, and above all contain Breece Hall, the home run hitting running back that could cause big problems for the Falcons. Everything else is either so-so or outright terrible for the Jets, who truly “boast” one of the worst offenses in the NFL.
How the Jets have changed
The phase “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” has rarely seemed more apropos. The Jets went all in on getting Aaron Rodgers, stocking the roster with friends and players he enjoyed playing with, and figured the aging star quarterback and a great defense would take them far. When Rodgers went down, it’s not so much that there wasn’t a Plan B—very few teams have a really compelling one—as it is that the Plan B was either Zach Wilson or Tim Boyle. Both options have been disastrous under center for New York, with Wilson looking mostly terrible and Boyle throwing one of the funniest pick-sixes you’ll ever see last week.
That the roster additions this year on offense were built around making Rodgers happy only adds to the problem. Nathaniel Hackett was a disaster for the Broncos last season, yet he was quickly scooped up to be New York’s offensive coordinator thanks to his relationship with Rodgers, and his offense doesn’t look great. Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb are trusted Rodgers targets who don’t look so hot without Rodgers, and the offensive linemen they’ve had pressed into action (including rookie Carter Warren at left tackle) have been so-so-to-terrible, while rookie center Joe Tippman is undergoing natural growing pains in the NFL. Some of their better options have hit injured reserve, to be fair to New York, but even additions like Quinton Jefferson on defense haven’t really panned out.
If all had gone perfectly and this team had remained healthy, they likely would’ve been interesting, and quite a bit of that is out of this team’s hands. Starters everywhere have hit injured reserve, leaving an already thin team even more depleted, but if we’re honest the Jets were counting on a healthy Rodgers elevating this team. Without him—and without core starters on both sides of the ball—the fact that they’re even vaguely afloat right now is kind of impressive.
It’s a shame, too, because some of those savvy signings and the team’s existing strength on defense and at a handful of positions on offense (wide receiver with Garrett Wilson and running back with Breece Hall) would have been a lot of fun to watch if everything has meshed. Instead, the Jets might well be cleaning house this offseason.
What to know about Sunday’s game
Rarely has a matchup been more simple for the Falcons, which means we’re at risk of seeing Arthur Smith and company overthink the gameplan. The way they handled New Orleans gives me some hope that we’re (mostly) done with the galaxy brain nonsense, though.
The Jets have a pretty lousy run defense. Quinnen Williams is absolutely stellar and this team has some very good run defenders at linebacker and in the secondary, but aside from Williams the line is not superb at slowing down opposing ground games. They’re allowing the 2nd-highest per game rushing yardage in the NFL at 140.3, and if the rate numbers suggest they’re capable of slowing teams on a per-carry basis, they’ve also had some rough efforts with eight games allowing over 130 yards rushing and two games over 200. The Falcons are the best rushing attack they’ve had to face yet, with the Eagles the only other team in the ballpark, and given Atlanta’s success the past three weeks running, it just makes sense to test the Jets early and often in this one.
The flip side is that a volume passing attack is a bad idea. Even with a banged up defense, the Jets are stingy, having held five opponents under 200 yards passing this year. The dam is starting to break a bit with injuries stacking up and a long season grinding away, but holding the Bills and Dolphins to under 500 yards in back-to-back weeks heading into Week 13 is hardly a horrible result. An opportunistic bunch, the Jets have picked off 12 passes in 2023, and they will punish any errant Desmond Ridder throws or outright gimme interception attempts. Add in an intimidating, very good pass rush that is capable of giving this offensive line and Ridder fits, and you have a recipe for a major disaster if this team has to air it out to win. The Falcons need to run, run well, and pick their spots for Ridder to let it rip; if he finishes the day with a tidy 152- passing attempts and doesn’t have any turnovers, the Falcons should win this football game.
Defensively, they have a couple of stars to keep in check and one lesser light I’m a bit concerned about. Breece Hall is a dynamic rushing threat who has ripped off some of the longest runs of the NFL season and is a useful receiving threat out of the backfield, making him a Bijan Robinson-type threat for Atlanta’s defense. Keeping him in check is the top priority if Atlanta wants to win this game. Top receiver Garrett Wilson, the team’s lone high-end option at the position, is the other big-time threat the Falcons have to neutralize. Like Chris Olave, he is slippery and thrives with a high volume of targets; Atlanta will have a frustrating day if they can’t do a better job of reining him in, even with Tim Boyle throwing him the ball.
The final threat is Ty Conklin, the team’s second-leading receiver and top tight end. Conklin isn’t the best tight end the Falcons have faced—not even close—but he’s a useful pass-catching option and this team has struggled to keep even solid ones in check. If the Jets can’t funnel targets to Wilson and Hall, they’ll likely try to do so to Conklin, and it’s up to Atlanta to ensure that doesn’t work out.
If you can keep those three from breaking open the game, the Jets lack the secondary threats to do more than annoy this defense in between the 20s, similar to what a depleted Saints team just did. The difference for New York is that instead of an overrated but still decent Derek Carr, they have Boyle, inarguably the worst current starting quarterback in football and a player most teams probably wouldn’t be particularly interested in adding as a backup. Get even a bit of pressure on Boyle to rattle him and throw him off his already limited game and the Falcons should be able to snare some turnovers and ensure drive-killing bad throws, putting them in a prime position to win if the offense can hold up their end of the deal.
None of this is guaranteed, as road games have been the bane of Atlanta’s existence, seemingly simple matchups have been complicated by screw-ups, and the Jets may well come ready to attack with their best players and force the handful of big mistakes it’ll take to win a close, low-scoring game. It’s up to the Falcons to stick to a plan that should work and avoid the errors that have so regularly doomed them this season, and as has to be the case after the first 11 games of the year, I’ll believe they can do so when I see it happen.