The week 4 match-up between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, taking place at the Georgia Dome in prime time (Sep 29, 2013, Sunday 8:30pm EST). On paper, this game is a match-up between Superbowl contenders from the AFC & the NFC, featuring Tom ‘terrific’ Brady vs ‘Matty Ice’ Ryan.
However, neither team is playing at a high level yet, both teams are struggling with injuries, and neither team has found its identity yet. So this game is big for both franchises. This game, regardless of how it goes, could very well be the fork in the road that will be looked back at towards the end of the season.
This is the Patriots first test against a quality quarterback, so if they take care of business, on the road, it could create a confidence level in this defense that will set the tone for the rest of the season. A Falcons loss would push them to 1-3, and challenge the psyche of a team that will consider this season an epic failure if they do not win the NFC Championship on their way to a Superbowl birth.
If the Falcons win at home against a quality opponent, they will be at 2-2 and ready to take control of their own destiny heading into the second quarter of the season. A Patriots loss might not be much of a set back since they are 3-0, but if the Falcons throw the ball at will and expose the Patriots defense, it will reveal that this year, in spite of the individual talent and athleticism, that the Patriots defense is a liability. Prior to this game, the Patriots defense has played well, but they have faced two rookie quarter backs and a young quarter back in free fall, Josh Freeman, who got benched this morning.
Falcons coach Mike Smith is sounding like Bill Belichick this week as he explains that his defense needs to play better situational football. Bill Belichick is famous for his obsession to practice specific down and distance scenarios with different times on the clock and with specific game scores. He challenges his players to understand the situation, and play accordingly.
Mike Smith was talking about how his defensive backs didn’t recognize the situation of the game on the last drive in their loss to the Miami Dolphins last week. There were a couple of third downs with short yardage needed for a first down, and his defensive backs played off the receivers, essentially giving them easy conversion opportunities. He also discussed red zone situations where the Dolphins were three for three in scoring touch downs. The Miami Dolphins drove down the field and scored a game winning touchdown as the game clock dwindled.
The Falcons players and coach are down playing the significance of this game and a 1-3 record should they lose. They state that the sense of urgency is there for every game as there are only 16 chances to win games each season. Privately however, there is no doubt that these players understand this game is bigger than most. Mike Smith stated his team’s formula for making the play offs is to win at home, never lose back to back games, and win at least half of their road games.
Well, this is a home game for the Falcons coming off a loss. So by his very definition, this is a must win game.
The Falcons top two receivers are Roddy White and Julio Jones are dinged up and appear as doubtful and questionable on the injury report, respectively. Also out is newly acquired running back Steven Jackson. The Patriots will be with out Danny Amendola again, but there is speculation that Rob Gronkowski might see his first playing time this week since five off-season surgeries on his fore-arm and back. Gronkowski was held off the PUP list going into the season. Logic dictates that was done because the team felt he could be ready before game 6 or 7. He’s been participating more and more at practice each week. If healthy, his presence in the game could be a huge boost for the Patriots offense.
It’s difficult to predict how this game will unfold since both teams are dealing with so much uncertainty. The Patriots could break out against a weakened and somewhat desperate team, or they could be totally exploited by a team in a must win situation playing in their home stadium.
Regardless of how the game unfolds, I expect it to be very competitive and end up being a game decided late. I feel the Patriots will continue to improve in their passing game and ball control offense and get a win in this one. Yet at the same time, this Falcons team has some grit and unlike the Falcons of the past, this team finds ways to get the job done. It’s hard to picture them losing a game they need so badly at home. Yet if Jones and White are hobbled, the Patriots have a definite advantage as they’ve had a week or two to adjust to the injuries they’ve endured and are showing improvement.
Patriot fans will get to see Asante Samuel this week. The former Patriot defensive star has made a living eyeing the quarterback, and leaving his coverage to jump into passing lanes to make a play on a ball thrown at a different zone. It will be interesting to see if Samuel can take advantage of Brady, or vice versa. These players know each other well and either could use that to break tendency and burn the other player.
Long time Patriot fans will get a treat being able to eyeball Sugar Bear Ray Hamilton. The long time Patriot standout of the 1970′s teams is the defensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons.