The New England Patriots are 3-0 for the first time since 2007. On Sunday night, they'll storm into the Georgia Dome to face quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. It'll be New England's toughest challenge of this young season.
Here are three essential matchups to watch for.
During the 2011 NFL draft, Atlanta's general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, had designs to trade up to No. 6 so he could snag wide receiver Julio Jones in the first round. The trade would've cost Dimitroff his first-round pick at No. 27, along with his second and fourth round picks, plus first- and fourth-round picks for the following year.
Dimitroff, who worked under coach Bill Belichick as the director of college scouting for the Patriots prior to being hired by the Falcons, sought his mentor's advice on the hefty price of attaining Jones.
As the story goes, according to the book War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team by Michael Holley (h/t Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com), Belichick advised Dimitroff against the move. Dimitroff did it anyway.
In this ESPN article from 2011, analyst Pat Yasinskas talked about the risk and reward of Dimitroff's gamble:
It's still way too early to judge that trade. Jones got off to a decent start. He missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, but returned to practice this week. In a couple of years, we'll have a better idea if Dimitroff made the right move or not.
Here we are, "a couple of years" later and we know the answer. Jones is spectacular. In 2012, he had 79 catches for 1,198 yards. He also had 10 touchdowns, 17 receptions for over 20 yards, 486 yards after the catch and zero fumbles.
As of Week 3 in 2013, Jones leads all receivers in the league with 373 yards. He's also tied for the most catches with New England's Julian Edelman (27 receptions). The difference is, Jones has 172 more yards than Edelman on the same number of catches, which speaks to his prowess as a vertical monster.
Jones dropped a whopping 182 yards on the St. Louis Rams in Week 2 (along with an 81-yard score, no less). And while he's primarily known as a speed demon, he's also extremely powerful; he carries defenders on his back in an effort to eat more yardage, and he's also a great blocker, which are two characteristics shared by Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski.
But as great as Jones is, Belichick has the edge. He's a master of schematically taking big players out of big games. His defense held Buffalo's Stevie Johnson to 39 yards in Week 1 and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson to 34 yards in Week 3.
You better believe Belichick's been thinking about Julio Jones all week. Come Sunday night, we'll see what he's drawn up. Should be a fascinating chess match.
Tom Brady vs. the Georgia Dome
Tom Brady will walk into the Georgia Dome with an active streak of 51 consecutive regular-season games with a touchdown pass. It's a remarkable achievement which places him just behind New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who currently owns the record with 54 straight games with a scoring pass.
Sunday's game falls on September 29—10 months ago to the day, on November 29, 2012, Brees carried his 54-game streak into the same Georgia Dome. The Falcons intercepted Brees five times that night and held him to zero touchdowns, which snapped his streak.
Safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, both of whom intercepted Brees in that game, will be on the field Sunday night against Brady.
For Moore and DeCoud, ending Brady's streak would be a point of pride.
In addition, there's also defensive end Osi Umenyiora to think about. Umenyiora was part of the New York Giants team which snapped the streak of Brady's perfect season in Super Bowl XLII. Umenyiora's coming off a two-sack performance against the Miami Dolphins last week.
Along with those three streak-breakers, there's also talented cornerbacks, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, to think about. Atlanta has a ton of weapons who are hungry to stop this streak.
Plus, there's the larger Georgia Dome complex to consider. It'll be insanely loud in there, which could affect New England's young receivers who still rely on clear communication to get things done.
Also, the Dome just has a different feel to it. It's an environmental deviation, which comes at a time when Brady's already dealing with radical deviation on his own roster. There's a ton of variables to consider here.
For Brady's sake, it would be best to throw a score in the first quarter to eliminate the tense drama. It would also allow his offense to flow more smoothly for the duration of the game.
Another interesting note on the subject of the streak: After the Patriots face the Falcons in Week 4, they'll play the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5, and, as it just so happens, they'll play Brees and the Saints in Week 6. This could get very interesting.
New England's Pass-Rushers vs. Matt Ryan
Although the Patriots are perfect at 3-0, it's difficult to really know where they stand on a deeper level. Their competition, thus far, has been suspect.
Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel and New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith are rookies who played against the Patriots in a "trial by fire" capacity. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman is the most experienced of the three, but he's thrown three picks and just two touchdowns for an 0-3 team.
Falcons slinger Matt Ryan presents the first major challenge the Patriots have faced at the quarterback position this year.
True, Ryan's team is less-than-stellar at 1-2, but he's still a cool rhythm passer, who threw 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns last year. He's a cerebral guy who reads coverages extremely well. He also takes hits with his chin up and stays mentally strong in tough situations.
On paper, he commands one of the most talented offenses in the game. In addition to Jones, he has receivers Harry Douglas and Roddy White (who's struggling with an ankle sprain). He also has tight ends Tony Gonzalez and Levine Toilolo, along with running backs Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers. Ryan's options are plentiful.
This will be the first opportunity to see how the 2013 Patriots fare against a good team with a strong quarterback in command. Pressure on the slinger will be of the utmost importance. Look for defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to determine the outcome of this game.
Even though the Falcons are underwhelming at 1-2, they're still a dangerous opponent with an opportunity to inflict maximum damage by beating the Patriots and breaking Brady's streak. They shouldn't be underestimated.
Luckily, Bill Belichick doesn't underestimate anyone.
Earlier this week, when Belichick appeared on the radio show Salk and Holley, things got a little testy between the coach and host Michael Holley. It began around the four-minute mark, when Belichick was reflecting on the mindset of him and his team heading into the Buccaneers game last week:
Belichick: We try to tell [our players] what the real situation is...what we need to do to win...Anybody that watched the first two Tampa games knows [they] were within two plays of being 2-0 instead of 0-2...that's the truth.
Holley: Name the worst team in the NFL...I get the sense you would find a way to say something good about that team or to think [about a facet of the game] that team does well. Is it simply you're preparing for that team's best, even if that team hasn't shown it?
Belichick: You always prepare for your opponent's best. I mean, what else would you prepare for? Do you think they're gonna come in here and turn the ball over eight times? You don't prepare for that, you prepare for a team [to] play their best football against you.
We're gonna prepare for them to play well. That's what our game plan's gonna be based on, the things they do well.
Holley: Some teams haven't played well, but you still expect them [to play well] when you play them?
Belichick: Of course. Why would you think they wouldn't?
Holley: Because if they haven't done it...
Belichick: So what? That doesn't mean anything. They've done something [well]. Doesn't mean this week they can't do a lot of things well, if they've shown they've done things in spurts, or in one phase of the game or another.
I think it would be irresponsible to coach a team and tell them, "Ok, fellas, the team that's coming in here is not gonna play well, so we should expect them to play a bad game, so why don't we play one that's just a little better than their bad game."
I wouldn't know how to prepare a team the way you're talking about. I couldn't even fathom that...How could you coach a team like that? You explain it to me...I don't know what you're talking about.
Holley: If you're playing a bad team, it's tough to say, "This team is capable of doing XYZ..."
Belichick: Like when we were 12-1 and went down to Miami and they were 1-12 or whatever it was [2-11], and they beat us Monday night in '04? Is that what you're talking about? Like it could never happen? Like, what game are we talking about here? I mean, I just don't understand that. To me, that's the most irresponsible thing I've ever heard of. I can't even fathom it.
Ah, the beauty of Belichick being Belichick. It's good to know the 3-0 Patriots will be ready for anything the 1-2 Falcons have in their repertoire come Sunday.