It’s true, this game on Thursday night for the New England Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons is as easy as it gets for a solid month and a half. But that doesn’t mean that the Falcons will be a push-over ahead of this brutal schedule. Despite having a generous defense and an offense unable to recapture the magic of its 2016 form, the Falcons are as sneaky of a team as anybody else in the NFL. Looking past their 43-3 implosion in Dallas, they’ve kept it close in almost all of their games. It’s part of the reason they’re sitting just outside the NFC Wild Card spot.
Their analytical standings aren’t great. The defense is sitting right around the average for their scoring and passing, and rushing they’re at the bottom of the league. Offensively they’re in the bottom half of passing offenses, and their rushing offense is basically nonexistent. But it hasn’t kept the Falcons out of games. 4-5 is beyond what was expected of them ahead of the season. The Patriots have their hands as full as they have at any point in the season. You can never take a quarterback as experienced as former MVP Matt Ryan for granted, and with a tight end as dynamic as rookie Kyle Pitts? This should be nothing short of a fun game. Though I wouldn’t expect a repeat of Super Bowl 51. So without further delay, set it up, Bailey! Let’s get this early preview underway.
Three Keys to The Game
Key #1: Prioritize Stopping Kyle Pitts
The rookie tight end out of Florida is nothing short of a spectacular athlete. Pitts has proven to be everything the Atlanta Falcons desired him to be. He’s caught 40 passes for 606 yards but just found the endzone once. Without Calvin Ridley, who has taken some time off of football to focus on his mental health, Pitts is Ryan’s best weapon week in and week out. Taking Pitts away is going to handicap the Falcons offense immensely. Especially without the ever-versatile receiver converted running back Cordarrelle Patterson, a former Patriot himself.
Key #2: Pound The Run Game
The Patriots had an insane day on the ground last week against the Cleveland Browns, whose rush defense is ranked first in the league. There’s no reason a repeat performance is out of the question. Without star running back Damien Harris, the Patriots racked up 184 yards on the ground. Rhamondre Stevenson had a career day, and the Patriots should absolutely keep it up with the rookie bruiser. He’s almost a re-incarnation of Legarrette Blount, a comparison I hated at first. But the more we see him, the more it rings true. Stevenson has taken command of the second running back spot showing the ability not only to catch out of the backfield, but being able to make some contested balls.
J.J. Taylor is also somebody that the Patriots should also get involved with further than special teams. The Patriots might be a little too deep at running back, which isn’t a bad problem to have in a league where backs come and go more often than any other position in the league. Brandon Bolden has been an adequate fill-in for the injured James White, who deserves some credit for his admirable performance. The Falcons are going to be pulling their hair out with how many ways the Patriots can use their backs.
Key #3: Give Mac Jones Opportunities to Air It Out
I don’t usually like writing about the quarterbacks, as they get a ton of attention as is. But Mac Jones has been on a tear throwing the ball in recent weeks. He’s coming off of a really fantastic day, throwing the ball all over the field for three touchdowns and 198 yards. Unfortunately, the most important touchdown in their 45-7 total domination of the Browns, was thrown by Brian Hoyer. It ended up being Jakobi Meyers‘ first career receiving touchdown that had the whole offense celebrating in the endzone.
Either way, Jones is looking like a serious rookie of the year candidate alongside Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase. The Falcons defense has been awfully generous to the quarterback, ranking 19th in the league. A.J. Terrell has proven to be a solid corner, but there are other ways to get the ball through the air. I hope Josh McDaniels doesn’t backtrack and lets Jones continue to work on his craft as the Patriots head into a brutal part of the schedule where running the ball may be hard to do.
X-Factor: Safety Adrian Phillips
I’ve picked Phillips for this X-Factor position in a lot of games, but his job is simple, but easier said than done. Phillips and Kyle Dugger have done an amazing job taking out some of the league’s best tight ends. But they haven’t met somebody as dynamic as Kyle Pitts. Scoring is the only way Atlanta is staying in this game against New England. Taking away Atlanta’s top weapon is going to be the best way to ensure that the Falcons won’t be putting anything major on the scoreboard. Cleveland was a much harder matchup last week as far as offensive talent goes. I don’t expect Bill Belichick’s defense to pitch a shutout, but it’s up to this unit how close this game will be. And it all starts with Adrian Phillips’ job of taking away Atlanta’s first-round pick.
The last four matchups dating back to the 2013 season between these two teams have been in primetime, and they’ve all resulted in Patriots wins. Most notably being Super Bowl 51. A 28-3 Super Bowl comeback that the internet will never forget, and a common favorite of NFL Network’s to play in the off-season when there’s not much going on in the NFL. Little did we know how soon these teams would go under new looks. Two uniform changes and two superstars moved on later, these teams are taking on a whole new look. One rebuild had a quicker rebound than the other. The Falcons had a head start after the 2018 season and the Pats are one year in and they’re already looking like playoff contenders.
Unfortunately, the Patriots’ schedule gets monumentally harder after this. Meeting the Titans at home after Thanksgiving, going to Buffalo to play the Bills on Monday Night, then the Colts in Indianapolis after the bye, finishing off with the Buffalo Bills at home before two layups against Jacksonville then a trip to Miami to end the year. As we expressed though, the Falcons are no pushover, despite the analytics.
I expect the Patriots to smother the Falcons truthfully. On a short week though, it’s unlikely the 45-7 blowout that the Patriots laid down on barely-average quarterback Baker Mayfield on Sunday. Though Belichick hasn’t been shy about running up the score during this four-game win streak. Ultimately, the Patriots should be tuned up and ready to go for the challenging road ahead. Just three weeks away from the bye, the Pats might just be peaking at the right time.
Final Score: 30-18, New England (7-4)