The Atlanta Falcons have been perfect. Well, at least their record says so at 6-0. Strangely enough, most power rankings throughout football news outlets and the blogosphere don't have the Falcons at the top of the mountain. Most don't even have them in the top three. Perhaps it's because the Dirty Birds have played the league's easiest schedule to date. Atlanta's opponents are a combined 13-24 to this point in the 2012 season.
Of course, that's not the Falcons fault. The league comes out with their schedule and the teams line up and go to war. Atlanta comes off its bye week to play the Philadelphia Eagles on the road Sunday at 1 p.m. Speaking of schedules, this will be the third straight team coming off their bye that Philly has faced. They fell in two close tilts with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions. This time, the tables are evened up, as Philly comes off its bye as well. Here are five things to keep an eye on when they kickoff Sunday.
1.) THE GAME OF KEEP AWAY
Let's face it, you can tear apart analytics, visit the myriad websites that break down game metrics, play 100 Madden simulations of this game, but none of it would matter. There's a reason the Falcons are 6-0 and the Eagles are 3-3. One team takes care of the ball and takes it away. One team gives the ball up and doesn't come up with the big play defensively when it's needed.
The Falcons are ranked third in the league in turnover differential at plus-10. They've ripped it away 17 times and coughed it up only 7. The Eagles are ranked 30th. They hemorrhage turnovers. It's the same disease that got them off to a 4-8 start in 2011 before they began taking care of the ball and finished up with 4 wins. They have taken the ball away 8 times, but when the defense has needed the big takeaway, it's been non-existent.
Turnovers are a major factor in every Eagles game these days, but when you're a game and a half out of the division lead and the ship has sprung leaks, it's even more vital.
2.) FALCONS ARE SOARING BIRDS, NOT RUNNING BIRDS
The Falcons are ranked 28th in rushing defense. The Eagles possess one of the league's top five rushing threats in LeSean McCoy. Philadelphians will tell you that doesn't mean a hill of anything once head coach Andy Reid scripts his first 15 plays and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg takes the play calling duties and suddenly thinks the Eagles are the 1999-2000 St. Louis Rams.
The Eagles don't need to go three yards and a cloud of dust. They have to get a lead or keep it close and establish balance. They should have success with McCoy if they do.
On the other side of the ball, Falcon running back Michael Turner hasn't been overly impressive. They'll try and establish him early, but the ideal situation for the Eagles is to take an early lead so they can unleash pressure on Matt Ryan. The Falcons offensive line is not their calling card.
3.) BYE WEEK HEX
Andy Reid is entering his 14th game coming off a bye week while coach of the Eagles. In the previous 13, he's 13-0. I'm not sure if that makes him the greatest two-week game planner in the history of the NFL. I'm not sure if he's more apt to roll the dice and take shots that work with a rested and fresh team. But numbers don't lie.
The Falcons, of course, are coming off their bye as well. Quarterback and early MVP candidate Matt Ryan is a Philadelphia native, attending the prestigious Penn Charter school. He's 1-3 against the Eagles in his short career and has yet to win in Philly. Does he have enough in his hometown to break Andy Reid's off-the-bye-week streak? That may rely on our next point.
4.) FALCONS' RECEIVERS vs. EAGLES' CORNERS
Turmoil has filled the bye week for Philly after the dismissal of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and the promotion of secondary coach Todd Bowles. Players have even intimated that the Eagles defense was too conservative late in close games. It'll be interesting to see how the Falcons game plan against Bowles' defense considering they can't really know what to expect. It's Bowles first game as a coordinator.
One thing we know is true. Falcons' wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are both beasts. Eagles' cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are both press corners who are not afraid to go one-on-one. That's a good thing since the Eagles' safeties are still young, and well, not yet extremely reliable. And, yes, I'm being nice.
The Eagles' defense has been conservative, relying on the Wide 9 technique of rushing the passer and often sending only four. Don't be surprised to see Bowles be much more aggressive with young linebacker Mychal Kendricks and his young and overly aggressive safeties in the blitz game. Not every down. But certainly more than we've seen, and interspersed much more throughout the game. That should leave the Eagles' corners singled up on the talented Falcon wideouts on more than one occasion. Eagles fans better hope they can get to Ryan. Again, it comes down to turnovers. Can a more aggressive Eagles' defense make something big happen?
And of course, in the red zone, DeMeco Ryans or the safeties will have their hands full with the venerable Tony Gonzalez. The cure for that? Don't let them in the red zone.
5.) What will Asante Samuel do?
Asante Samuel has never done anything quietly. So, if you don't think he'll make his presence felt either through greatness or complete and sheer stupidity in his return to Philadelphia, you just don't know Asante.
The Eagles unloaded the loquacious corner to Atlanta for a 7th round draft pick this offseason. Might as well have traded him for a tub of Gatorade and some practice pinnies. Samuel is a zone corner. The Eagles had three in the fold and the other two were better served as press corners. Do the math.
Samuel has thrown some jabs at Reid via Twitter, saying that Reid should point the finger at himself, and later that there is no decline in his game, which Reid apparently intimated over the summer. Samuel's pick-6 in the Falcon's last win points to some accuracy to his notion that he still has what it takes.
If we're pointing out things to keep an eye on in this game, how could Samuel's antics not be one of them.
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer and a Philadelphia sports enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber14.
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