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NFL Preview - Oakland (1-3) at Atlanta (5-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When the 2012 season began, the Atlanta Falcons were trying to shake off the disappointment of yet another premature playoff disaster. Five weeks and five wins later, they're trying to keep themselves from getting too giddy over a better-than-hoped-for response to adversity.
Coach Mike Smith's team can remain the NFC's lone unbeaten entity when they host the Oakland Raiders Sunday in the Georgia Dome. As a bonus, a victory will allow Smith to equal the franchise record for victories -- set at 49 by Dan Reeves -- in his 70th game at the helm.
"It is a great start for us, it really is," quarterback Matt Ryan said."At this point, you can't really worry about what is going on in the history of our organization, but we have put ourselves right where we need to be five games into it."
Through five games, Ryan has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,507 yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions, helping the Falcons stay with Houston as the only 5-0 teams in football.
Balanced in its production, Atlanta is fifth in the league in scoring offense (29.6 points) and fifth in defense (18.6).
Conversely, the Raiders emerge from a Week 5 bye after winning just once in four games and are 30th in scoring defense (31.2 points) and 25th in total defense (411.5 yards). In two road games, Oakland has been outscored, 72-19, in losses at Miami and Denver.
"This team's got a whole different attitude about going out there and expecting to win," Atlanta receiver Roddy White said.
But it hasn't been all run-ups and routs for the Falcons. They went to the final seconds before a game-winning field goal to defeat Carolina on Sept. 30 and rallied from a 17-14 deficit to top Washington last week.
Veteran speedster White is on the NFL leaderboard with 31 catches, 481 yards and three TDs. Tight end Tony Gonzalez leads the league with 39 catches and has 388 yards and four touchdowns.
The 36-year-old caught 13 passes for 123 yards and a score against the Redskins. In 23 career games against Oakland - most during his days with the Kansas City Chiefs -- he's got 110 receptions, 1,473 yards and eight TDs.
"We're not going to stick our head in the sand," Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. "We're going to evaluate everything and see what things we need to improve on and where we can get better."
A new Allen defense has included varied fronts, blitzes and coverage schemes, but Oakland foes have nonetheless connected on 71.5 percent of passes and converted 53.3 percent of third downs while the Raiders have compiled just three sacks and forced three turnovers. Injuries have forced personnel switches in the backfield, where safety Michael Huff has shifted to cornerback.
"You're not going to win many games in this league if you can't win on third down," defensive tackle Richard Seymour said.
And it's not as if the offense has been a bright spot.
The Raiders had only 237 yards in a 37-6 loss to Denver in Week 4. Oakland's been successful on only 27.5 percent of its own third downs and has gained just 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. In one win, Darren McFadden rushed for 113 yards with a TD. In three losses, he has 88 yards and has not scored.
Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey may finally return after a head injury sustained against Pittsburgh last month. In limited 2012 duty, he has nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown.
Oakland leads the all-time series, 7-5, and has won three of the last five games, but Atlanta won both the last time the teams played -- in California, 24-0, in 2008 -- and the last time they met at the Georgia Dome, 35-10, in 2004.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The good news for Oakland strong safety Tyvon Branch is that it's the last time he's likely to face Atlanta's Gonzalez on an NFL field. The bad news is that Gonzalez, a slam-dunk Hall of Famer after he retires, has been more prodigious against the Raiders than any other team. A week after racking up the aforementioned 13 catches and 123 yards against the Redskins, Gonzalez heads into the matchup feeling sentimental.
"(Oakland) was the first team I ever won against," he said. "I played them in my second game of the season. Monday Night Football. We won like on the last play of the game with Andre Rison. That was in 1997. Shoot, my longest catch ever came against them, 73 yards for a touchdown, out there in Oakland."
Branch said the key to slowing the old man down is changing up the approach.
"Diversifying your defense is the best defense," he said. "So I'm sure we're going to throw some different looks at him."
In his fifth season as a pro, Branch has started three of four games this season and recorded 25 tackles. In 60 career games in the league, he's made 279 tackles, intercepted three passes, defended 15 and forced three fumbles.
At some point, the Falcons will trip over a game most expect them to win. But given the struggles of the Oakland offense to stay on the field and the defense to keep foes off of it, that stumble doesn't figure to be here. Atlanta has enough weapons to switch from one to another if needed, and that'll be enough to get Smith his milestone win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 28, Raiders 17
10/11 13:43:53 ET
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