Sunday Night Football: Patriots vs. Falcons Preview

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The Patriots face a challenge on Sunday Night Football against the Atlanta Falcons in front of the raucous Georgia Dome crowd. Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran breaks it down.

New England’s run the ball pretty effectively so far this season, particularly last week against the Bucs. There have been outlier plays that have bolstered their numbers – Brandon Bolden carrying three times for 51 yards last week – but overall, they are establishing a good identity on the ground. Expect them to stick with that in Atlanta where the Falcons have been pretty good (79 yards per game, a 3.8 average) but the teams they’ve faced – Saints, Rams, Dolphins – are disinclined to push it on the ground. The Patriots will stay with the balanced running back approach, but LeGarrette Blount may be less of a factor against a speedy Atlanta front-seven. The Falcons will be missing linebacker Sean Witherspoon all season. In the air, the Patriots simplified and had success last week. Against a Falcons secondary that’s allowing 66 percent completions and 7.56 yards per attempt to opponents, the Patriots will stay on the upswing. With another week under their belts, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins will be making another step forward. They’ll need to because you can expect the Falcons to focus on slowing down Julian Edelman as they did last week with Dolphins No. 1 Mike Wallace (2 catches, 22 yards). Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are looking like game-time decisions. Info I have is that Amendola’s a long shot for this week, more likely for Cincy. The return of Gronk will help in various ways, one of which is possibly opening things up for Zach Sudfeld to begin making an impact in two tight end sets. The position has been mostly ignored by Brady in the passing game. Finally, Brady coming off a poor performance is a beast and last week qualified. If defensive coordinator Mike Nolan wants to try and blitz Brady – not an unreasonable idea given the sight adjustments and hot routes his young receivers would be consigned to running – I’d still say advantage Brady. Rookie Desmond Trufant mans one corner and the aging but still dangerous Asante Samuel is on the other. Safety Thomas DeCoud is pretty good.

Atlanta’s banged up on offense as well. Steven Jackson is likely out, Julio Jones has been limited in practice with a sore knee, Roddy White’s got a high ankle sprain, left tackle Sam Baker has ankle and knee issues, The strength of Atlanta is its explosiveness. It will be, by far, the best quarterback/skill position group the Patriots have faced. But it’s held back by those injuries. In Matt Ryan, the Falcons have a player who lifts the performance of his offense and team. He’s accurate (68 percent passer last year), takes great care of the ball (133 to 62 TD-INT over his career) and is actually underrated mostly because of a 1-4 playoff record. He and Julio Jones are the most dynamic young QB/WR combo in the league and Jones is having the best season of any wideout so far with 27 catches and 373 receiving yards. Look for the Patriots to put Aqib Talib on him and always have deep safety help eyeballing Jones’ movements. Tony Gonzalez has been OK so far (11 catches, 93 yards) at the tight end spot. He’s not what he used to be. Roddy White has been a shell so far with just seven catches for 56 yards. Slot receiver Harry Douglas is a tough little weapon though. The Patriots have been straightforward on defense so far, but they could get a little more inventive to try and slow the roll of an efficient quarterback like Ryan. Watch Chandler Jones on Sam Baker, the left tackle. With Baker dinged up, Jones could have a day. The Falcons running game isn’t going to scare anyone with Jaquizz Rodgers. Expect the Patriots to be in nickel or dime defense much of the day.

Douglas is talented but he’s done nothing on punt returns so far for Atlanta. Both Matt Bosher and Stephen Gostkowski figure to put all kickoffs through the end zone in the Dome. This will be Ryan Allen’s first game punting in a dome for the Patriots. He hasn’t punted to his capabilities yet. Expect a solid night from him. Bosher is a terrific young punter and is averaging a 45.1 net. Gostkowski is on a field goal hot streak at the moment and this prime-time game in a dome is a chance for him to keep feeding his confidence.

Noise is going to be a big factor for the Patriots offense to deal with. It gets exceedingly loud in the Georgia Dome and on a Sunday night, it’s gonna be raucous. There’s no room for miscommunication between wideouts and quarterback on any night, even less on this one. A lot of mental pressure on the Patriots young players.

“We have to play our best game, there’s no doubt about it. If you go three-and-out, if you just put what happened last week with us, we had three three-and-outs to start the game, it could be 21-0. That’s the way they play. We have to be able to start fast. We have to put points on the board, we have to get people in the end zone. Obviously the critical plays like turnovers, critical third downs, scoring opportunities in the red area are all going to be crucial to winning the game.” – Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback, on the importance of starting quickly.

“He is a very physical, athletic corner that has the capability [if] they want to match him up with the number one receiver. We’re very familiar with him from having played against him while he was in Tampa, so we’ve seen him a number of times and we know that he is an outstanding player. We anticipate we’ll get his best shot this week. He is a good football player, their best cover guy by far.” – Mike Smith, Falcons head coach, on Aqib Talib

- Tom Curran, CSN New England

Watch Live: Patriots vs. Falcons 8pm ET

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