Through three games, the New England Patriots have remained unbeaten for the first time since 2007 even though this year's team is vastly different to the dominance of '07 so far. However, the defense has given up its fewest points in the first three games of a season since 1979 and the offense took great strides last week with two touchdown catches from Kenbrell Thompkins and seven catches from both Aaron Dobson and Julian Edelman. On the negative side, the Patriots still may not have tight end Rob Gronkowski who is trying to recover from back and arm surgeries. Yes, the Patriots did get Josh Freeman benched, but this team has not exactly played the greatest of competition so far. This team will face its toughest test of the season so farnight as they try to defeat a team that was a preseason favorite in the NFC. This team is also trying to avoid a disappointing 1-3 start to their season.
The Atlanta Falcons were in the same position the Patriots were in last year, one half away from reaching the Super Bowl. This year, the Falcons revamped in the offseason with the signing of running back Steven Jackson to improve their offense. So far, Atlanta has seen Jackson miss time with a hamstring injury and wide receiver Roddy White be limited in games due to an ankle sprain.
On defense, the team will also be without their best linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for at least a couple of months with a foot injury. That being said, this team still has an above average quarterback in Matt Ryan and good receivers in Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez that have the capability of lighting up a scoreboard. With this game being in the Georgia Dome and at night (, NBC), this will be a raucous crowd especially in what probably feels like a must-win for Atlanta.
Here are my three keys tonight's game:
Sniff Out The Snelling: With Steven Jackson out, Atlanta now has had to resort to a two running back system. One of the main players that could play a factor out of the backfield is Jason Snelling. In last week's game against the Dolphins, Snelling did split carries with Jacquizz Rodgers, but his main contribution came via the reception. He was second on the team in catches behind Julio Jones last week with four catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. While the Patriots have been a top ten defense against the pass this season, they are only 24th against the run. If Vince Wilfork and company can't stop a running game for Atlanta that isn't at full strength, the play action opens up for Matt Ryan which can lead to trouble for the Pats' defense. The Patriots also will look for Stevan Ridley to get back on track this week even though Brandon Bolden was the one who shone the brightest last week.
A Red Flag In the Red Zone: With the Patriots' offense, fans are used to seeing touchdowns at a high rate when they get inside the opponents' 20 yard line. This year, its been more frustrating than exhilirating for the Pats. They are dead last in red zone conversion percentage at just 30% of those drive ending in touchdowns. The Falcons are not much better, only converting touchdowns on 50% of red zone possessions. If the Patriots do not have Gronkowski again, I don't expect the conversion percentage to get higher, even though Thompkins had two red zone touchdown passes last week. For the Falcons, Tony Gonzalez needs to step up as the tight end only has 116 yards and a touchdown in three games as he is playing in his final season.
A Broken Down “Sea” Bass: With all the talk surrounding the injuries to Gronk and Danny Amendola, the Patriots may have some concern this week on the right side of their offensive line. Right guard Sebastian Vollmer was back at practiceafter missing and with a foot injury. If Vollmer can't play, this leaves a huge opening for the Falcons' pass rush that doesn't have Kroy Biermann. However, that team does have Osi Umenyiora. The former Giants' pass rusher, who was part of the defensive lines that bothered Tom Brady in the two Super Bowl games, had his first two sacks of the season against the Dolphins last week. Brady has been sacked seven times in three games, so I expect Brady to be on the turf more than usual night if Vollmer is less than 100%.
The Patriots are 3-0, but some of the media pundits do not believe it is a legitimate 3-0. We will find out a lot more about the Patriots both this week and next week against the Bengals. As for this game, I expect Tom Brady to become more comfortable with the receivers as Dobson and Thompkins look excited to catch passes now rather than relieved. I do expect Gronkowski to miss this game, but Brady can exploit the secondary, especially rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant. That being said, it is anight game on the road against a team that needs this game considering that last season, NO 1-3 team made the playoffs. This is a must win for the Falcons and with Roddy White back to being near full strength, I think there are just too many weapons for the Patriots to stop in the 4th quarter. Close game, but Matty Ice wins it for the Falcons.
FALCONS 27 PATRIOTS 23