Well It's that time of year again already: Thursday night football is back, and this year it kicks off with a great AFC vs. NFC matchup that pits the traveling Baltimore Ravens against the home team Atlanta Falcons. Both teams are 6-2 coming into this game, and they're both coming off of offensive explosions.
The game is a classic battle of the unstoppable force taking on the immovable object. The Ravens have the ninth best defense that has given up the sixth least amount of points in the league this year. The Falcons are the unstoppable force, boasting the league's fifth best offense and scoring points per game.
If the Ravens could only get their offense playing well consistently, they would be a very hard team to beat for anyone they face. One thing they have going for them in this matchup is that the Falcons aren't very good against the pass. With all of the play makers the Ravens have in the passing game, this is a very favorable matchup going against the NFL's 26th ranked pass defense.
Ravens WR Anquan Boldin is a big, physical receiver who is capable of busting big plays at any time. Going up against the smaller, less talented secondary of the Falcons, he is going to be nearly unstoppable.
Falcons cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes are both listed at 5' 10" and 181 and 182 lbs. respectively. Neither one of these guys are going to be able to keep a lid on Boldin. They'll require safety help over the top from William Moore and Thomas DeCoud to contain Boldin.
Both Falcon safeties are listed at 6' 0", but Williams is clearly the more physical and bigger defender. He also has three picks to DeCoud's one this season. Williams will probably get the majority of the help duty on Boldin, but this causes other problems in the secondary.
Baltimore's no.1 receiver for the last 8 years, Derek Mason, has 30 catches this season and is still a fine receiver. There's also WR T.J. Houshmendzadeh and TE Todd Heap to worry about. Baltimore definitely has the advantage in this matchup.
As far as the Falcons passing attack goes, they the NFL's most decorated WR in 2010 in Roddy White. White is a one man army this season. He has 58 catches and 796 yards to go with his five TD receptions. Add to that future HOF TE Tony Gonzalez and his 37 catches, and you have a deep threat and a threat over the middle that have to be accounted for on every play.
The Ravens' pass defense is not quite what it's been in years past. They're only mediocre, ranked 15th in the league and giving up a passing TD a game. CBs Josh Wilson and Chris Carr are solid players, but they aren't good enough to keep up with White and Tony G all day. Safety Ed Reed is having a solid season, but he's getting older.
The key to containing the Falcons' passing attack will be getting pressure at the point of attack. The Ravens front seven is playing good ball this year, racking up 14 sacks in their first 8 games. They also have good cover linebackers in short yardage situations.
Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are still good enough to keep up with any TEs for at least a few seconds. If the Ravens' line does their job, that's all that Falcons QB Matt Ryan will have to get rid of the ball for most of te he night.
Ravens DT Haloti Ngata leads the team in sacks with five, and as long as he continues to get pressure, he'll be able to negate the high-powered falcons passing attack for a good portion of the game. This will mean that the Falcons will need to run the ball effectively in this game if they want to have a chance to win on Thursday night.
This is the real matchup of the day: The Ravens' stingy run defense against the Falcons' number six rushing offense. The same Ravens LBs who are going to be needed in the short passing game are going to have to step up against the run. It just so happens that this is their specialty.
Ray Lewis is one of the best run stopping LBs of all time, let alone this season, and Suggs is following nicely in his footsteps. These guys live for the sideline to sideline pursuit of running backs. The only real way to go at them is to go right at them. Falcons RBs Michael Turner and Jason Snelling are bigger, more bruising backs which matches up well against the Ravens front seven. I'd call this a push.
On the other side of the coin is the Ravens underachieving running game consisting of one-two punc backs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. These two were a force last season, with Ray Rice being the lightning bolt that shocked opposing defenses with a breakout year and McGahee thundering into the end zone in the red zone.
This week, the 11th ranked rushing attack is going up against the strength of the Falcons defense: Their sixth ranked run defense. They run a 4-3 defense and they spread the tacking duties out nicely with a steady dose of substitutions. They have a good bit of LB depth, and team tackling leader Curtis Lofton is looking like the little known anchor on a very good running defense. This matchup is also a push.
That leads us to the next big matchup of the day. Ravens QB Joe Flacco was supposed to have a big breakout kind of year after acquiring Housh and Quan, but this hasn't quite been the case. Boldin is having a great year, but Flacco isn't. He's battling inconsistency. Flacco looks brilliant some weeks and flat out unimpressive during others. He's going to have to take advantage of the matchup problems in the Falcons' secondary.
It's really going to come down to which young QB plays better. Matt Ryan is getting better with every start, but Flacco is coming off of a big win against the Dolphins in which he threw for 266 yards and two TDs with no picks.
Falcons QB Matt Ryan is coming off of back to back good performances. He has 534 yards and 4 TDs in the last two games and only one pick. He's also completed almost 69 percent of his passes in those games.
Both QBs are hot right now, but the one that remains hot is going to get his team a win on Thursday night. If they both stay hot, we are in for some serious fireworks in this one. It's the Falcons chance to prove that they can play with the big boys, and it's the Ravens chance to prove that they are still on of those big boys.
The Ravens are tied for first place in the AFC North with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Falcons are a mere one game up in the NFC South on the Buccaneers and a half game up on the defending champion Saints. Both teams need a win in this game just as badly as the other, there's no questioning that. Which team gets the win is going to come down to who wants it more.