It’s a Super Bowl LI matchup on Sunday night when the New England Patriots (4-2) welcome the Atlanta Falcons (3-2) to Gillette Stadium.
The Pats, who are in sole possession of first place in the AFC East, rallied from a 14-point deficit last Sunday to beat the New York Jets while the Falcons lost to Jay Cutler and the Miami Dolphins 20-17.
Atlanta had an explosive offense in the 2016 season – from quarterback and Boston College alum Matt Ryan averaging 9.3 yards-per-attempt and the team averaging a crushing 33.8 points per game – they were always a threat to any team they played.
However, this season, the Falcons passing game is nothing like what it was last season. Ryan’s completion percentage has slipped to 65.9 percent from 69.9 percent while his yards-per-attempt average has dipped to 8.0.
They’re throwing more on first downs than they did last year, but it’s proving to be not nearly as efficient as last season. Ryan has three interceptions on first-down throws – so the Pats defense will have to be ready to make that number rise.
With how many of Atlanta’s drives have resulted in Ryan throwing a pick (12.8 percent), the New England defense has a good chance to add to their five interceptions on the season.
Atlanta’s pass offense may be another chance for the Patriots defense to stand out with Ryan already being sacked 10 times through five games and have blown second-half leads in their last two games. (Sound familiar?)
However, on that Atlanta offense are some targets that are lethal to the game. Running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman are averaging 4.8 yards per carry while Coleman is averaging 5.6 yards by himself.
This is a dangerous duo on the field and they will both likely see a heavier workload this week. If they have two out of their three best playmakers on the field at once, the New England defense will need to be on its A-game
Of course, there is running back Julio Jones who is always a threat down field. He caught six of his seven passes in Sunday’s loss to Miami while averaging 72 total yards. Head coach Dan Quinn said he wants to see Jones targeted more often – so the New England defense will need to be sure to cover him and not let Jones get by them.
The Pats D has been the topic of many conversations already this season – but it seems to be improving each week. Most noticeably against the Jets where they allowed just 17 points – the second-lowest all season.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler will need to continue his competitiveness he showed on the field on Sunday against New York where he forced a fumble and had an interception.
Quarterback Tom Brady will continue to use the “uncoverable” wide receiver Danny Amendola for long passes and touchdowns – much like he has done all season.
Wide receiver Chris Hogan was on the injury report for New England this week with a rib injury he suffered on a hit during the win against the Jets. He is likely to play Sunday, so Brady will look to target him as well.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski will be a threat to the Atlanta defense as Brady will look to target him down the field for long passes and big yard gains.
Protection of Brady will be crucial – as it is every week. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore (ankle/concussion), linebackers Harvey Langi (back) and Elandon Roberts (ankle) and cornerback Eric Rowe (groin) have not practiced this week with the team, so there will need to be some adjustments in order to protect Brady – who has been hit 37 times through the first six games.
The good news? Quinn was hired by Atlanta in 2015, the team is 4-11 against AFC teams and 0-5 in their last five meetings against New England – not beating them since 1998.
In order to win, Brady will need to get rid of the ball quickly, target Amendola and Gronk frequently for touchdowns and rely on his defense to not get hit as often as he has.
Final score prediction: New England: 24, Atlanta: 21