For all who have questioned the credibility of the New England Patriots 3-0 start based on the strength of their opponent's, tonight's game will be a chance for the Patriots to prove those doubters wrong. While the Falcons are sitting at 1-2 with a losing record, they remain a force to be reckoned with and are fully expected to be competing for a playoff spot in the NFC South by the season's end.
When the Patriots are on defense
The Falcons maintain a high-octane passing attack led by veteran Matt Ryan and standout receiver Julio Jones. Jones figures to be the main focus of the Patriots defense, and it would be surprising if the Patriots didn't keep safety Devin McCourty over the top, shading to his side on just about every play. The Falcons are dealing with some key injuries on offense however. Roddy White is expected to play, but is dealing with a high ankle sprain that has hobbled him this season. The Falcons' running offense will also be down their lead man, as veteran running back Steven Jackson has been ruled out.
The Falcons have also had some struggles along the offensive line, where Sam Baker and second year man Lamar Holmes have struggled at tackle. Holmes in particular, has struggled, leading quarterback Matt Ryan to be one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the league. If Patriots left end Chandler Jones can win that battle, it could be key. This season, Matt Ryan has completed just 51% of his passes while under pressure while 80.9% of his passes while not under pressure, according to ProFootballFocus.com. The key to stopping Ryan hasn't been blitzing, as he's also completed 72.2% of his passes when blitzed. They key to stopping the Falcons passing attack will be for the front four to win their one-one-one battles. And the key spot where the Patriots have a chance to overwhelm the Falcons is at that right tackle spot.
When the Patriots are on offense
Once again, the Patriots will be shorthanded when it comes to playmakers. Both Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, whom the Patriots were hoping to have back for this game, remain out. Both are good bets to return next week, but it means that the Patriots will once again be relying on their rookies and youngsters to make plays.
Fortunately for the Patriots, the Falcons recently lost two key defenders: linebacker Sean Witherspoon for half the year and linebacker/defensive end Kroy Biermann for the entire season. Biermann was one of the most valuable and versatile defenders for Atlanta, and they've been forced to look towards rookie free agent Joplo Bartu to play a starting role at outside linebacker along side Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas. Nonetheless, the Falcons have maintained a top five run defense this season.
Teams have been able to pass pretty efficiently on the Falcons this year. Atlanta is playing two rookies extensively at cornerback - Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. They've also had veteran safety Thomas DeCoud see some struggles this year. Veteran and former Patriot Asante Samuel was also added to the injury report on Friday with a thigh injury, and it is unknown if he will play.
Game Time: 8:30 PM ET
TV Schedule: NBC
Streaming: Live on NBCSports.com during the game
Falcons Coverage: The Falcoholic