Week 4: Patriots-Falcons matchup analysis

Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

New England Patriots (3-0) at Atlanta Falcons (1-2)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Georgia Dome, Atlanta - TV: NBC
*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
*Keys to the game: Atlanta continues to explode out of the gate, dominating opponents 31-0 in the first quarter when QB Matt Ryan has flawlessly executed the team's first dozen-plus plays. The momentum has been short-lived this season and the Falcons have only 24 second-half points. New England NT Vince Wilfork is a load for most offensive lines to contend with, but he'll be a major challenge for Atlanta's inexperienced lightweights up front. If the Falcons abandon the run early -- as their nearly 2-to-1 pass-run balance this season implies (119:60) -- Ryan and his receivers figure to again adjust routes to compensate for a reconfigured offensive line. Tom Brady would love a pair of first-round Pro Bowl wideouts like Ryan's, but the Patriots are mixing and matching with mostly rookies and possession receiver Julian Edelman while TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Danny Amendola get back to full health. Brady is averaging a career-low, and 33rd-ranked, 5.5 yards per attempt and big plays have been sparse. A strong running game with Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden has produced four yards per carry, including more explosive runs, and countered teams daring to blitz Brady.
*Matchup to watch - Patriots LT Nate Solder vs. Falcons DE Osi Umenyiora: Solder is a patient, natural blocker with the reach to ride Umenyiora away from Brady.
*Player spotlight - Falcons WR Julio Jones: Head coach Mike Smith rates Jones as the most complete receiver in the NFL, and there's some footing there for that argument. Jones has been targeted a team-high 35 times by Ryan in three games and the in-game jousting with CB Aqib Talib will be worth monitoring.
*Fast facts: The Patriots have four rushes of 20-plus yards from four different running backs in three games. They had three 20-yard runs in 2012. ... New England hasn't allowed a point in the fourth quarter this season.
The Patriots aren't the high-flying hybrid Tom Brady is accustomed to piloting and a youthful supporting cast will make navigating the raucous Georgia Dome more of a challenge. Atlanta's injuries and modest pass rush keep the Falcons from dealing New England its first loss.
*Our pick: Patriots 24-23

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