The Falcons are coming off a tough loss against the Miami Dolphins and have given up over 300 yards per game through the air this year. They will be looking to get well against the young Patriots receivers.
Patriots Offense vs. Falcons Defense
When New England is on offense, rookies are going to be the focus on both sides of the ball. Rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have played well so far, but they'll face a test with fellow rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins coming to town. Getting off the line of scrimmage cleanly will be key to the Patriots' success.
Look for the Patriots to take advantage of the over-aggressiveness of Asante Samuel—a major reason he isn't in New England anymore—and use double moves to create explosive plays down the field. This might be the game that we see Josh Boyce show off that deep speed.
Of course, having Rob Gronkowski in uniform might change things a bit for New England. If he is a go, look for the Patriots receivers to be in a lot of one-on-one situations outside.
Patriots Defense vs. Falcons Offense
The Patriots have so far done a very good job shutting down the best receiver on the other team. They held Stevie Johnson to 39 yards, Santonio Holmes to 51 yards and Vincent Jackson to 34 yards. Each of them only caught three passes.
Julio Jones is a different animal. His blend of speed, power, polish and raw talent goes beyond anything in the NFL outside of A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson. Look for Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard to split time on Jones, giving him some different looks throughout the game.
In order to give Talib and Dennard some help with Jones, look for the Patriots to try and get pressure with their front four. Chandler Jones has been effective getting pressure from both the defensive tackle and end positions in 2013, with Rob Ninkovich and Michael Buchanan looking good on the edge.
If Vince Wilfork and the run defense can keep the Falcons in 3rd-and-long situations, then Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can open the playbook up a little and bring some blitzing linebackers.
What They're Saying
Bill Belichick had the following to say on his regular conference call (transcript courtesy of ESPN.com) when asked about his advice to Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff not to trade up Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft.
I think Julio has done a great job for them. He's an excellent football player, period. As a receiver, he's got good good strength, good speed, good ball skills. He makes some acrobatic catches, goes up and takes the ball away from defenders. He's strong after the catch.
Tough guy to tackle. He's also very good in the running game, a good blocker. He's a guy that will go in and get linebackers and safeties in the running game; he's probably about as good as anyone in the league.
So it's not just his receiving skills, although they're very good. I think he's a complete football player. I know he's a tough kid, and a hard worker, and is great for their program. I'm sure that they're very happy he's on their team, because he does a good job in every area.
Tale of the Tape
Running Backs: A healthy Shane Vereen or Steven Jackson could have swayed the decision one way or another, but a lot of question marks remain in their absences. Jason Snelling, Jacquizz Rodgers, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount all have talent; we'll see who shows up on Sunday.
Wide Receivers: This one isn't close. As much as I may love Tom Brady's new receivers, Julio Jones is one of the three best receivers in the league right now. Roddy White and Harry Douglas aren't slouches themselves.
Tight Ends: Unless Rob Gronkowski suits up for this game, this comparison isn't even close. Tony Gonzalez was the best in the league for a long time and still has some fuel in his tank.
Offensive Line: The Falcons' pass blocking hasn't been good this year, although they've only given up four sacks. Julio Jones can't get deep into his route if Matt Ryan is under constant pressure. If Sebastian Vollmer's ankle is good to go on Sunday, the Patriots have a clear advantage here.
Defensive Line: Both defensive lines have played relatively well this year and feature a good mix of veterans and rookies. The play of Corey Peters and Vince Wilfork could very well decide the outcome of the game.
Linebackers: The Patriots' three-headed monster of Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo is tough to match, especially with Sean Weatherspoon—the Falcons' best linebacker—on short-term injured reserve. Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu have shown flashes of talent, but they are still works in progress.
Defensive Backs: Asante Samuel might be third-best cornerback on the Falcons, behind rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. As well as they've played, Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard have been better. The Patriots have the tougher matchup against the Falcons receivers, so they'll have to keep up their stellar play
Special Teams: Both kickers have missed a field goal this year, while each team has performed very well on kickoffs—the Patriots with kicker Stephen Gostkowski, the Falcons with punter Matt Bosher.
The tale of the tape ends with the Patriots in the lead, 4-2, with three categories even. The Patriots might have a slight lead in the number of categories won, but no team has a clear advantage going into this game.
Wednesday's Injury Report Analysis
Did Not Participate: Matthew Slater, Sebastian Vollmer
Limited Participation: Danny Amendola, Kyle Arrington, Brandon Bolden, Marquice Cole, Nate Ebner, Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Will Svitek, Leon Washington
Full Participation: Vince Wilfork, Zach Sudfeld
Analysis: According to Karen Guergian of the Boston Herald, Danny Amendola isn't likely to play Sunday against the Falcons. Rob Gronkowski isn't a sure thing either.
If Vollmer is able to go, however, the Patriots should be able to weather their absences for another week.
Offensive tackle Sam Baker, receiver Roddy White and running back Steven Jackson were all unable to practice on Wednesday. Jackson has already been ruled out, but I expect White to be able to give it a go.