By Gregory Hunt
At the beginning of the season, this game looked like it was going to be New England’s first true test against a quality team. However, while the Patriots are unbeaten at 3-0 as expected, the Atlanta Falcons have been struggling to win games on the road. The Falcons may not be as good as advertised, but it will still take a solid effort from New England to get a victory at the Georgia Dome in front of a national TV audience Sunday night.
After blowing a fourth-quarter lead to lose on the road to the Miami Dolphins 27-23 in Week Three, the Falcons come into this game with a surprising 1-2 record. Last season, after earning the number one seed in their conference with a 13-3 record, the Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship Game where they lost to the San Francisco 49ers 28-24. The Falcons are 6-6 all-time against the Patriots. The teams last met in the regular season in 2009, where the Falcons lost 26-10 at Foxboro.
Falcons on Offense
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who played his college ball at Boston College, is now known as a top-tier quarterback in the NFL. His 2012 passer rating of 99.1 actually exceeded the 98.7 rating of New England’s Tom Brady. This season, Ryan’s current rating of 100.4 ranks 7th in the NFL, but he’s been hampered by a running game that ranks only 21st at 90 yards per game.
Ryan’s number one target, wide receiver Julio Jones, leads the NFL in receptions (27, tied with New England’s WR Julian Edelman), and is second in the league in receiving yards per game (124.3, trailing only WR Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns with 146). His total receiving yardage (373) actually exceeds that of his three closest teammates (354), so if New England needs to double-team any receivers, Jones is the one to target.
Newly acquired running back Steven Jackson was expected to be a major rushing threat for Atlanta, but he’s battling a hamstring injury. He was inactive in Week Three against the Dolphins, so it remains to be seen if he’ll play against New England. If he does, his effectiveness may be limited.
Falcons on Defense
The Falcons are currently ranked 22nd in the NFL in total defense, giving up 375 yards per game. However, they are particularly strong against the run, where they rank fifth in the league only giving up 79 yards per game. Atlanta has a total of only seven sacks for the year, which matches the total that the Carolina Panthers reached against the New York Giants in Week Three alone. Three of their four leading tacklers – Robert McClain, William Moore and Thomas DeCoud – are all defensive backs, which is an indicator of how well opposing offensives are throwing the ball against them.
If the statistical trends are any indication, New England should have a fair amount of success passing the ball against Atlanta. The following three things need to happen in order for the Patriots to win this game:
- Rookie wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson need to step up and make big plays
- The Patriots need to win the turnover battle
- The defense needs to slow down Julio Jones
The Dolphins visit the 3-0 New Orleans Saints on Monday night for Week Four, but the Patriots can’t afford to rely on the Saints to stay in first place in the AFC East.
For more Patriots news and updates, visit Patriots Central.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.