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Scouting the Matchup: Signs point to shootout

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The Falcons have been up and down against the run but statistically are right on the cusp of being a top-10 team in that category. Whether or not the Patriots have success running the ball Sunday depends on their own ability to block effectively and commit to a balanced attack. In recent weeks, Mike Gillislee has played his best football, and the always-elusive Dion Lewis has been a bigger part of the offense. Lewis scored for the second time in two weeks against the Jets, and has suddenly given New England the two-pronged attack it boasted in years past with the likes of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley or the Ridley-LeGarrette Blount duo from 2013. Atlanta has been effective against bad running teams and dismal against those who commit to the run and stick with it. The Patriots need to show some consistency on the ground. Advantage: Falcons

WHEN THE FALCONS RUN

This is where Atlanta can really hurt New England. Two-time Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman is a known commodity and a touchdown machine for the Falcons, but third-year pro Tevin Coleman continues to improve each season. The two have teamed to form arguably the best running back duo in the NFL. Freeman is the No. 1 option and the finisher in the red zone, but Coleman can explode from time to time as a legit big-play threat. The Patriots have struggled against the run defensively and are thin at linebacker. Even with Dont'a Hightower playing more of a role as an interior linebacker than as an edge rusher based purely on necessity, the Falcons are tough to slow down. Freeman totaled more than 120 all-purpose yards in last year's Super Bowl against New England and will see the ball early and often again on Sunday. Advantage: Falcons

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Considered by many to be an elite unit entering 2017, Atlanta's young, ball-hawking secondary hasn't quite lived up to the billing yet. Losing safety Ricardo Allen to a concussion hasn't helped, but poor play by cornerback Robert Alford and a team-wide inability to force turnovers has limited Atlanta's potential. The pass rush, anchored by resurgent defensive end Brooks Reed, could be the difference against Tom Brady, who has endured more hits and sacks this year than at any point in recent memory due to lingering protection problems up front. The Falcons also got Vic Beasley back and the 2016 NFL sack leader will be a problem off the edge. The Patriots, however, remain one of the league's top passing teams and are benefiting from the recent return of Rob Gronkowski. Brandin Cooks is becoming more comfortable with Brady each week, and the potential for big plays remains an enticing proposition as long as the line holds up. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE FALCONS PASS

Led by reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan and one of the league's most prolific offensive lines, Atlanta remains neck and neck with New England in terms of its ability to throw the football.  The receivers haven't held up their end of the bargain yet, as a handful of tipped passes and mishandled throws from Ryan have led to uncharacteristic interception numbers and a surprisingly slow start by all-world receiver Julio Jones, but with veteran Mohamed Sanu as a safety valve and Coleman thriving out of the backfield, the Falcons can attack New England's defense in a number of ways. Sanu is nursing a hamstring injury, however, which has limited him greatly. The Patriots bounced back defensively against Tampa Bay following a horrific performance against the Panthers but still need better communication and more consistency from their pass rush. This is a much tougher test than the Patriots have faced in recent weeks. Advantage: Falcons

SPECIAL TEAMS

Falcons kicker Matt Bryant remains one of the best in the league at his position, and the team's return unit has benefited from the production of rookie Andre Roberts, who serves a dual role on both punts and kickoffs. But a staggering amount of penalties has hurt the team's field position at times. Poor tackling has also put Atlanta near the bottom of the league in return yards allowed, which could open things up for Danny Amendola as he continues to gain traction in the punt return game. Special teams captain Matthew Slater recently returned from an injury after missing most of the season, so his presence should shore up the coverage unit, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski has quietly gotten off to a strong start, even after missing a 47-yard field goal against the Jets. There's no real edge here, but Amendola can be a difference-maker. Advantage: Patriots

OTHER FACTORS

There's no doubt a revenge factor at play here for Atlanta following last year's epic collapse in the Super Bowl. A win Sunday changes nothing, but any remaining players from the 2016 team will probably have a bit of a chip on their shoulder this weekend, including Ryan and the young, budding defense that fell apart down the stretch in Super Bowl LI. The Patriots have already lost twice at home this year, which seems like an anomaly given their historic success at Gillette Stadium, so it's unlikely they will look as bad against Atlanta as they have in their previous three home games. Likewise, Atlanta has now lost back-to-back games against AFC East teams (Buffalo and Miami), while the Patriots enter this one on a two-game win streak. The Falcons are a tough out, but so is New England at home. The Patriots have momentum in their favor.* Advantage: Patriots*

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