8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Patriots -3.5, Over/Under: 55
It doesn’t happen often, but a Super Bowl Rematch highlights the week of NFL action, as the Atlanta Falcons look to gain a small measure of vengeance as they travel to Foxboro, Massachusetts to battle the New England Patriots, who defeated them in thrilling fashion back in Super Bowl LI. Though it may be difficult for them to do so, the Falcons (3-2, 3rd in NFC South) need to put aside their incessant desire to pay back the Patriots for their Super Bowl debacle, and focus more so on turning their own season around, which at this point has NOT gone how they had planned it to. At first glance, you may not notice any glaring issues with the team, but diving a little deeper into their Resume’ thus far will unearth some startling issues that reek of the dreaded Super Bowl Hangover threatening to cripple their designs of a second consecutive trip to the Big Game. Dan Quinn’s charges began the term 3-0, though that’s a bit misleading given the fact that they only really looked impressive in one of those victories, which was a 34-23 win over the Green Bay Packers. They flat-out looked lethargic in the Season Opener at Chicago, in which they narrowly avoided disaster, putting together a successful Goal Line Stand in the waning moments of the 23-17 affair. Two weeks later they would need a controversial nullification of a would-be game-winning Touchdown to best the Detroit Lions on the road and remain perfect, before falling flat on their face in successive home games against the Buffalo Bills (17-23) and most recently, the Miami Dolphins (17-20). The latter of the two has proven to be the most troubling, as two prevailing ills that have plagued this team before have come to the forefront: blowing sizeable leads and turning the football over. In one of the more surprising (if not obscure) statistics, Falcons Quarterback Matt Ryan (65.9%, 271.4 Y/G, 7.16 NY/A, 6 TD, 6 INT) has now seen his prolific statistical portfolio extend to a category that he’d rather not be associated with; since entering the league back in 2008, the reigning MVP has lost five games in which his team has held a lead of seventeen points or more, by far and away the most in the NFL during that span. Of course, that includes Super Bowl LI (which we’ll get into in a bit), with last Sunday’s surprising loss to the Dolphins adding another mark on that dubious list. Looking refreshed off their Bye Week, Atlanta raced out to a 10-0 lead, before taking a 17-point advantage into Halftime, only to prove unable to add to the scoreboard in any manner the rest of the way. The visiting Dolphins patiently grinded their way back into the contest (dominating possession to boot), while their Defense continued to confound the hosts, limiting the Falcons to just four possessions in the Second Half, allowing only one to proceed past twenty-seven Yards, with the final Drive ending in an Interception, effectively ending the game. Ryan (24-of-35, 248 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT) wasn’t terrible by any means, but he wasn’t great either, which has been the case throughout the first five outings of the season thus far, with Turnovers playing a heavy hand in the results. The tenth-year veteran has tossed six Interceptions already, which is one less than the seven he threw all of last year, with all six coming in the last three games, which depending on how you feel about that aforementioned call in Detroit, should be three consecutive losses. Turnover Differential is always a huge component of success in the NFL, and in 2017 Ryan and Co. are finding themselves on the opposite end of the spectrum, committing seven Turnovers (17th Overall), while forcing just three, which is tied for the fewest in the league at this juncture. Hell, that Differential stands as Minus-5 in the last three games alone, which is almost insurmountable, even with weapons like Julio Jones (25 REC, 367 YDS) and Devonta Freeman (79 CAR, 353 YDS, 5 TD) in your artillery. Simply put, this team needs to stop shooting themselves in the foot, for they’ve done a solid job of moving the ball offensively, and thwarting their opponent’s movement on the opposite side of things; Quinn’s charges have churned out the fifth-most Yards in the league (392.0), while ranking Sixth in Passing (271.4) and Eleventh in Rushing (120.6), and in turn have allowed the tenth-fewest Yards overall (312.4), ranking Twelfth against the Pass (210.4) and Thirteenth against the Rush (102.0). Perhaps the return of a healthy Vic Beasley (5 TKL, 2.0 SK, 1 FF), who missed three weeks with a sprained ankle, will help ignite some big plays from this unit, with last year’s Sack Leader (15.5) no doubt looking for an opportunity to hit Patriots’ Quarterback Tom Brady whenever possible.
Meanwhile, it was against the Falcons that the Patriots (4-2, 1st in AFC East) enjoyed their most recent (and in some opinions their most rewarding) conquest, as New England miraculously rallied back from a seventeen-point deficit to force Overtime, and secure the fifth Lombardi Trophy of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick Era. Indeed, all seemed lost as Brady and Co. trailed 28-3 early in the Third Quarter, but as they have done on so many occasions throughout the past sixteen years, they persevered by making play after play with ruthless efficiency, taking advantage of every mistake Atlanta made (which were many), before completing the largest comeback in Super Bowl History. Simply put, this was arguably Brady’s crowning achievement, atoning for a dreadful First Half to complete 43-of-62 Passes for 466 Yards, two Touchdowns and an interception, including 28-of-38 Passing in the Second Half and Overtime, where his two scores and a crucial Two-Point Conversion kept the rally alive. With the confetti falling from the ceiling of NRG Stadium, the two-time MVP celebrated his fifth Super Bowl Championship, the most of any Starting Quarterback in NFL History, ultimately cementing his stellar legacy and vindicating a season that began with the 39-Year Old serving a controversial Four-Game Suspension. Now, six games into the 2017 campaign, it has become readily apparent that if he’s going to add any more hardware to his collection he’s going to have to play at that level without pause. And it’s with that statement that the Patriots have been a muddled conundrum thus far, owning a surprisingly underwhelming record on the strength of a glaringly one-dimensional Offense, and arguably the worst Defense in the history of Belichick’s storied coaching career. Despite scoring plenty of Points (28.7, 5th Overall) and racking up the most Yards in the league (428.5), something has been missing in New England’s attack, with balance being the absent concept. Once again, it’s been a committee-like approach in the Backfield, with many of those Tailbacks doubling as reliable options in the short passing game, which has been such a staple of this unit for years now. However, the absence of Slot Receiver Extraordinaire Julian Edelman, who shredded multiple knee ligaments in a Preseason tilt with the Lions, has created a sizeable hole in the scheme, which has forced Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and Brady to adjust to a mixed bag of results. Now in the twilight of his career, Brady has had to throw the ball more than he has in recent years, averaging 38.8 Attempts per Game, which goes against the conventional wisdom in handling a 39-Year Old Quarterback who is not what would be described as fleet of foot. Of course, more Drop-Backs parlays into more opportunities to get pressured, with No. 12 getting dropped for a loss sixteen times thus far, which is one more than he was Sacked all of last season, and more alarmingly equates to a Sack on 6.4% of his Drop-Backs, his highest percentage since his first season as the Starter back in 2001. With reports of a lingering sore shoulder floating out there over the past few weeks, it remains to be seen how Brady will continue to hold up physically as the season progresses. And speaking of holding up, it may end up being that the Patriots’ Defense holds this team hostage in 2017, for no matter how you look at it, this unit has been absolutely abysmal. Let’s take a moment to run down the statistics, shall we? Belichick’s charges have allowed 26.5 Points per Game (30th Overall) on a league-worst 440.6 Total Yards (32nd Overall), including 324.8 versus the Pass (32nd Overall) on 7.8 Net Yards per Attempt (32nd Overall), along with 115.8 against the Run (20th Overall) on 4.7 Yards per Carry (27th Overall). Seriously, in what has become such a passing league of late, ranking dead last in so many Pass Defense categories is NOT a recipe for success. Poor communication and frequent breakdowns in Coverage have plagued this particular part of the Defense, which has been burned for a staggering fourteen Passing Touchdowns thus far (31st Overall), which is even worse when you consider that New England has still found their way to the opposing Quarterbacks a respectable fourteen times. Needless to say, this is something that certainly needs to change soon, for opposing Quarterbacks have had a field day against these guys; even the average Quarterbacks around the league are joining in on the fun, with 38-year old journeyman Josh McCown lighting them up for 354 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns in last weekend’s controversial 24-17 victory over the New York Jets. With dates with the likes of Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers looming in the next few weeks, things don’t appear to be letting up for the Pats’ Defense anytime soon.