Sept. 27, 2009, the date of my Atlanta Falcons' game against the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Massachusetts, was staring me down across time. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Dirty Birds meeting the perennial powerhouse.
I started believing we could win this game. Whether our offense really is improved from last season or Bill Belichick's group really has lost its edge, NE being favored by three-and-a-half is looking downright generous.
The Falcons caged the Wildcat in a major way in Week One, allowing just one garbage-time touchdown to the Dolphins, and then showcased what might just be the best passing game in the L (there, I said it) against the Panthers in Week Two.
It is absurdly early to assume New England has fallen from grace, but, oh, how to say this: I could probably find a way to control my sorrow if they do. This is not a bunch to which I pledge any allegiance.
They look just unsure enough to become prey of my Birds.
New England Rush Offense v. Atlanta Rush Defense
First, a look at the raw numbers: The Patriots have run for 73 and then 83 yards in their two games.
Now, a look at the names: Fred Taylor (old!), Lawrence Maroney (underachieving!), and Kevin Faulk (not a workhorse!).
Of course, this is New England we're talking about here, so who really gives a flip about their ground game, anyway? The way the ball flies up there, keeping opposing defenses honest is less than necessary.
I'm confident the Falcon 'backers can swallow up any Pat tailback, especially considering how the pair of great pairs that have come to the Dome has been controlled. Curtis Lofton's youth is obviously rubbing off on Mike Peterson, and Peterson's skills are quickly being absorbed by Stephen Nicholas, and it all amounts to barely needing defensive tackles.
Speaking of, we did indeed lose Peria Jerry after the knee injury last week. This game could have been a confidence booster for the soft-on-run-stoppage tackle, but I'm more lamenting that he's one less pass rusher we can throw at Brady. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
New England simply does not come out of the I like we do with Michael Turner. I've got a lot of respect for Taylor, as he's certainly making Jax look foolish for letting him go with no fight, but I'm considering the typical Belichick offensive gameplan and finding fairly little to even discuss here. On to bigger and better things.
Atlanta Rush Offense v. New England Rush Defense
A-ha! Now here's a team that'll hit you in the mouth.
The Burner was a lot more productive last week, though one should certainly mention that the Panthers' stuffing seemed to not be trying. Michael very much meets his physical match in nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who seems like he should be getting old by now but totally isn't (it's just his sixth year out of the U!).
Ty Warren is great against the run too, and while Jarvis Green is known as a rusher, in truth this is a versatile line that sums to just about the toughest unit Turner will face this season. Note that the Patriots opponents' rushing totals have been darn near as low as NE's themselves—just 90 and 117.
The Falcons are going to want to mix it up. Jason Snelling coming out of the I, as he did a couple of times last Sunday, should be just the beginning of keeping the Patriots off Turner's scent. I don't see Jerious Norwood being horribly effective on reverses (much love, but when has he ever been?), so I'd prefer the different looks to simply be different points of attack with a fullback in front each time.
Gear up, Ovie Mughelli!
In terms of the second level, the Patriots have very much replaced their big-name corps with some store-brand stuff, but they've all got the potential to evolve, and that's going to keep stuff interesting. Gary Guyton played his head off against New York, but Jerod Mayo looks to be out for sure. Of course, he and Adalius Thomas (the lone holdover from the Super Bowls) are more rushers, anyway.
In all honesty, the ground game on either side isn't really going to tell the story, though I'll quickly give the nod to my squad as to whose is better. The New England front seven is somewhat better than Miami's, but I see a similar if not slightly better performance from both the line and the backs.
New England Pass Offense v. Atlanta Pass Defense
But now let me hop down off my high horse to admit that if ever there were a mismatch, this is one. You've got one of the best wide receivers in the game and the best slot receiver in the game going up against, well, a group that has shown very little ability.
That's not to say Brian Williams doesn't look like a significant step up, nor that Chris Houston had a bad game at all last week, but the two things I've harped on several times since the beginning of the preseason—Chris Owens' lack of awareness, Brent Grimes' lack of size—will get abused by the Pats at some point in this game.
Besides that, even if Williams and Houston ran at full speed all game long and un-necessitated the occasional Grimes appearance, no one can shut down both Randy Moss and Wes Welker for an entire game. Not with Tom Brady throwing to them.
The best chance is to rush and eat up what is suddenly being regarded as an "overrated" offensive line with our defensive trenchmen, like the Giants did in '08. I choose you, John Abraham!
In reality, it will take Abe, Jonathan Babineaux (hopefully occupying two blockers), and always feisty Kroy Biermann to put pressure on the pocket. But we've got a good chance of doing it with those three guys, and maybe the occasional safety or corner coming way 'round.
I just want Kroy earlier and more often. Why Jamaal Anderson got the start at the end spot opposite Abe last week was puzzling; why, after a dominating performance against the 'Fins, would he be relegated to late-game play only? For sure, we'll need him from down one in this game.
In terms of dealing with Brady himself, I'm not all that concerned. He is very much still the passer and cerebral player he once was, but it's looking like that knee is going to bother his mobility, and that (combined with the O-line seemingly degrading) is going to take away a chunk of his effectiveness.
Yeah, a chunk, because Randy will still steal balls out of the air, and Wes will be places we didn't imagine him being. That's how New England rolls.
Atlanta Pass Offense v. New England Pass Defense
When I got back from the game on Sunday, I gushed just a little bit about our passing game. I'd thought it looked solid against Miami, but a few certain things that occurred against Carolina screamed "even better."
I'm mostly thrilled about how everyone seems able to contribute in most situations. One would expect Tony Gonzalez to be a terror on third downs, and he sure as heck is, but we also went to Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, and Marty Booker when we just had to have that first, and we had success. We've also had Norwood, Mughelli, and Snelling (even Burner caught one last week!) catch the ball.
It amounts to an overwhelmed opposing secondary. Sure, the Panthers' is nothing to write home about, and the Dolphins' is merely "good," but New England hasn't faced a particularly good receiving corps (sorry, T.O. and Lee Evans, but Fred Jackson led the team in yards) either.
Newcomer cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden both had good games against Buffalo, but against the Jets it became apparent that it was just because the ball was in their neck of the woods more often, as their stats evened out. Same goes for safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, and note that not a one of these guys has a pick yet.
And you know what makes me feel better about dealing with the Patriot rushers? Think back to how we handled Jason Taylor and Joey Porter of the Dolphins. The Pats bring more from the line with Green, but their Tully Banta-Cain and Thomas don't equal the trash-talker and No. 99.
Besides, as Matt Ryan said at the press conference last week, "I'm not a rookie anymore."
Ice has truly been stellar behind his quietly improving offensive line, but I'll save that for another article.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Falcons 17
We have the firepower to keep up for a good amount of time, but I think going into Gillette will take its toll on our psyche. It's not that Matty will be nervous, Turner out of it, or Gonzo the least bit uncomfortable—it's just that it's Foxboro, and you're supposed to lose there.
It should be close. Another breakout game from Biermann could do 'em in, but for now I guess I'll be humble and safe. It's been a long time since this team was doubted or disrespected, so one has no idea how they'll respond as the media begins to get a bit down on them.
People talk about how this is a big game for us, but it's just as big for them, after dropping one in Foxboro to a hated rival. Not that you nasty Bostonians would ever abandon your team if it did poorly.