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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Another super shootout?

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Don't call it a Super Bowl LI rematch.

No, really, my boss said we’re not allowed to call Sunday night's battle between the Patriots (4-2) and Falcons (3-2) at Gillette Stadium a Super Bowl LI rematch.

Sure the two teams square off for the second time in little more than a handful of games with the same quarterbacks, head coaches and similar overall rosters. But the stakes are far different this time around than they were last February when Atlanta blew a 28-3 lead to allow New England to win its fifth Lombardi Trophy in overtime.

That historic game is history.

Here and now this matchup pits two talented teams that have dealt with myriad issues to open the new season. Neither is anywhere near the proven product that hit the field in Houston. Now, it’s about overcoming obstacles to remain in the hunt to return to the biggest game in all of sports.

There is no question Sunday night is a big game. For just the eighth time in history you have the two teams from the prior year’s Super Bowl facing off the following fall. You have the reigning NFL MVP in Matt Ryan visiting the runner-up for that award, Tom Brady.

So while I can’t call it a Super Bowl LI rematch, I can call it one of the more intriguing, important games on the NFL calendar as the middle of the new season approaches.

New England is looking to shake off its early struggles and horrific play on defense, despite which the Patriots could tie for the best record in football with another win over Atlanta. The Falcons are trying to shake off consecutive losses to the Bills and Dolphins, the latter defeat in which it blew a 17-point lead to rekindle questions about the squad’s potentially broken psyche.

Two formerly great teams with two great quarterbacks will face off in what has the potential to be a great game in a season that hasn’t had enough of them. Points could be scored. Seasons could altered. And losses could be…avenged? Maybe not.

No confetti, trophies or rings will come as a direct result of Sunday night’s action. It’s still a big game even if not the biggest game in all of sports.

Rematch or not, here are some potential keys in this meeting the reigning conference champions ready to square off to prove themselves legit contenders on this late-October Sunday night in New England.

*7-up? - *Ryan threw just seven interceptions all of last season but has already thrown six picks through five games this fall. They haven’t all necessarily been his fault, but they are indicative of a passing attack that’s not cruising along like it was a year ago. So far this fall every opposing passer has topped 300 passing yards against the Patriots, who’ve given up 14 touchdowns compared to five picks. New England has major health issues in the back end with both Stephon Gilmore (concussion) and Eric Rowe (groin) likely to miss another game. Playing without two of your top three corners against Ryan and Co. is less than ideal. Still, the Patriots pass defense with Malcolm Butler, Johnson Bademosi, Jonathan Jones and the rest must find a way to at least be competitive against the Falcons passing attack. New England’s defense needs to stop allowing every opponent to have a feel-good day throwing the football. The best way to do that would be to turn the ball over, giving Ryan his seventh interception of the year and maybe more. It’s probably unrealistic to expect the Patriots coverage to make massive strides in one week without two of its better cover men, but it’s not out of the realm of realistic goals to push for a couple game-changing turnovers.

30-plus - Brady and his offense have been held to less than 25 points in each of the last two games, something that never happened in consecutive weeks last season. The Falcons have been held to just 17 points each of the last two weeks in losses, this for an offense that was held below 24 points just once all of last season. So, it would seem both teams are due to get back to the 30-plus point levels that most expect them to hit more often than not. It’s hard to imagine these two offenses both being held in check and given the Patriots issues on defense that means Brady and Co. need to come to the field with a an eye on lighting up the home scoreboard. Sure 24 points were enough to beat the Jets and would have been enough to beat the Falcons in three of the five games Atlanta has played. But it still doesn’t feel like a safe bet. Bill Belichick’s game plan for the Super Bowl was based on his belief that both teams would score a lot of points. It took a while, but that’s exactly what happened. Planning similarly this time around would seem to make sense.

*Sunday Run D - *The Patriots run defense is coming off by far its best game of the year in New York, holding the Jets to 3.1 yards per carry. The test for that group is even greater this week against Devonta Freeman (4.5 avg.), Tevin Coleman (5.6 avg.) and an Atlanta offense that averages 4.8 yards per carry, fourth-best in the NFL. Those guys gave the Patriots problems in the Super Bowl, especially getting to the edge and taking advantage of a speed advantage. New England has had issues setting the edge this season up front. If that’s true on Sunday night it will open up the entirety of the Atlanta offense. But if Alan Branch, Dont’a Hightower and the guys on the edge can win the battle up front and make the Falcons more one-dimensional it would be a huge step toward victory. That’s a big if against one of the more talented, versatile running back duos in the NFL. New England has improved in terms of yards and average allowed in three straight games, making it four could be a big key toward victory No. 5.

*Star power - *Two of the best quarterbacks, two of the best receivers, the best tight end and the reigning NFL sackmaster will be on the FieldTurf Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. That’s a lot of NFL stars in a primetime battle looking to put on a show. The more of those guys that succeed in that effort the better it will be for the NFL and NBC. It will also go a long way toward deciding the outcome. Brady hasn’t been at his best in recent weeks dealing with his shoulder injury. Gronkowksi, on the other hand, has been dominant in his last four games and he’s an issue Atlanta didn’t have to deal with in the Super Bowl. Jones is looking to break out and reach the end zone for the first time for Atlanta. Brandin Cooks will look to reverse a trend of sluggish performances against Atlanta, the former division rival he’s averaged just 24 yards-per-game against in his last four fights with the Falcons. And though Vic Beasley has just two sacks while dealing with a hamstring injury to open the season, he’s getting healthier and more dangerous by the week. Sure this is a real game and not some fantasy football matchup, but the real outcome could be decided by the stats that the star players from each team are able to put up.

*Must-win? - *This is a big game in a lot of ways for both teams. New England has yet to play very well at Gillette Stadium this season, probably fortunate to not be 0-3 in Foxborough. A win would push the Patriots very much back into the mix of the best teams in the conference and the league. But another loss would only increase the talk that New England just doesn’t have what it takes this year and may not be able to turn around its early-season struggles. Atlanta is trying to avoid losing three straight games to AFC East opponents. More importantly, the Falcons are trying to exorcise the demons from last winter’s franchise-altering collapse. A win for Quinn’s team could turn the season around. Another loss could cement Atlanta as yet another team falling victim to the Super Bowl-loser hangover. All will not be cured for either team with a win, but each has a lot to lose on Sunday night.

Prediction: While the Patriots have the NFL’s No. 1 offense and No. 32 defense, Atlanta is one of only two teams to rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense at this point. Neither offense is at its best right now, but each has the ability to break out at any moment. Big plays and turnovers will be a major factor in the outcome. It’s not too hard to write up a scenario for either team winning and in almost any fashion. In the NFL, when in doubt go with the home team. Or when in doubt go with Brady and the Patriots. Brady’s passing attack should be able to keep pace with whatever Ryan does to the Patriots defense. New England has also run the ball better of late and stopped the run more effectively, both ways to help win games. It probably won’t be easy, because nothing has been this season. And the banged up pass defense probably needs to get a turnover, which I think it will. Mix it all up and we’ll go with a 31-21 Patriots win, probably with the margin increased by a late score. Tune in to find out though, because this year with New England you just never really know what you’re going to get.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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