NFL Preview - Atlanta (3-1) at Cleveland (1-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Two teams brimming with optimism in the wake of recent events square off for an interconference matchup this Sunday in Cleveland, where the Atlanta Falcons set their sights on a fourth consecutive victory in a Week 5 clash with a Browns team expected to have its No. 1 quarterback on the field for the first time in nearly a month.
Atlanta comes into Cleveland Browns Stadium sporting a 3-1 record, with an overtime loss at Pittsburgh in the season-opener the club's lone blemish. The Falcons have been rock-solid on both sides of the ball during their strong start, while displaying a knack for winning close games as well.
After showing a real gut-check in coming through with a 27-24 overtime triumph on the road over fellow NFC South member and reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans in Week 3, the Falcons were able to overcome a big early deficit and rally for a 16-14 win over visiting San Francisco this past Sunday.
Atlanta spotted the determined 49ers a 14-0 first-quarter lead before assuming control, with the defense stifling the opposition the rest of the way. Wide receiver Roddy White made a big impact as well, hauling in seven Matt Ryan passes for 104 yards and forcing a game-saving turnover as time was winding down.
Ryan threw what seemed to be a fate-sealing interception with 1:20 left to play and his team still down by a point, but White ran down Niners cornerback Nate Clements and induced a fumble that was recovered by Atlanta lineman Harvey Dahl at the Falcons' seven-yard line. Ryan than moved the offense into scoring range, with White coming up with three catches on the second-chance drive, to set up Matt Bryant's go-ahead 43-yard field goal with two seconds remaining.
The fortunate Falcons will now be aiming to record four straight wins for the first time since Oct. 31-Nov. 28, 2004, a year in which Atlanta advanced to the NFC Championship Game under quarterback Michael Vick and head coach Jim L. Mora.
Cleveland has been involved in its share of close calls as well in the early going. The Browns lost their first three contests of 2010 by a combined 12 points before finally breaking out with a hard-earned 23-20 decision over division-rival Cincinnati last Sunday.
The Browns rode the strong legs of Peyton Hillis to the much-needed victory, with the powerful running back churning out 102 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, while a defense that was burned for 346 passing yards on the afternoon came up with a big late stop to preserve Cleveland's three-point edge.
Cleveland also received an efficient outing from backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, who completed 18-of-30 attempts for 184 yards and a touchdown with one interception in making a third consecutive start for an injured Jake Delhomme, out with a high ankle sprain the veteran suffered in a Week 1 loss at Tampa Bay.
Delhomme was able to return to practice on Wednesday, and all indications are he'll be back in the huddle for this weekend's tilt barring any setbacks. The 35-year-old will be facing a very familiar foe, having spent the previous seven seasons as the primary triggerman for Atlanta's NFC South co-tenants in Carolina before signing with the Browns in March.
Cleveland holds a 10-2 edge in its all-time series with Atlanta, including a 17-13 road victory when the teams last met, in 2006. The Browns also win the most recent matchup in Cleveland, a 24-16 triumph in 2002. The Falcons' two wins in the series came in Atlanta in 1993 (17-13), and in Cleveland in 1971 (31-14). The Falcons are 1-5 in Cleveland all-time.
The Browns' Eric Mangini and Falcons' Mike Smith will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Though Ryan (978 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) is a quality quarterback and White (32 receptions, 362 yards, 2 TD) stands among the game's elite receivers, Atlanta's offensive success is usually predicated on how well its sometimes devastating running game is operating. The Falcons were humming in that department during the New Orleans win and a Week 2 rout of Arizona, gaining over 200 yards on the ground in both tests, but were held to a modest 98 yards on 29 attempts by the 49ers last week and the offense lacked consistency as a result. Expect bruiser Michael Turner (281 rushing yards, 1 TD, 6 receptions) to be the focal point of the game plan again on Sunday, with the versatile Jason Snelling (226 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 3 total TD) sprinkled in on top of his duties as the third-down back. The dangerous White has averaged eight catches and over 90 receiving yards thus far in spite of teams usually rolling coverage his way, and the Pro Bowl wideout's numbers could go up even more if the Falcons can develop a reliable third option opposite he and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez (19 receptions, 1 TD). Youngster Harry Douglas (9 receptions, 1 TD) did provide a lift by catching three passes for 59 yards and a score last Sunday, while this week's hopeful return of Michael Jenkins from a shoulder injury that's kept him out since the preseason should help as well.
Turner and Snelling will be attempting to push the pile on a Cleveland defense that's been greatly improved against the run after fielding one of the league's more submissive units in that area over the past two years. Linebackers Scott Fujita (23 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Chris Gocong (15 tackles) have proven to be astute offseason additions to a re-tooled front seven, with 12th-year vet Eric Barton (19 tackles) also playing at a high level alongside Gocong on the interior. The Browns limited Cincinnati to 67 rushing yards a week ago but weren't nearly as effective in stopping the pass, with the Bengals' Carson Palmer shredding the secondary for 371 yards and a pair of scores one week after struggling cornerback Eric Wright (19 tackles, 4 PD) was toasted for three touchdowns by Baltimore's Anquan Boldin in a loss to the Ravens. The Browns rank 29th in the NFL in pass efficiency defense at the moment, a somewhat surprising figure considering the team has done a decent job pressuring the passer. Underrated outside linebacker Matt Roth (18 tackles, 2 sacks) posted a pair of sacks of Palmer last week, and counterpart Marcus Benard (7 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and beefy tackle Shaun Rogers (3 tackles) have performed well in their roles as situational rushers.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Like the Falcons, Cleveland wants to employ a ball-control philosophy on offense centered around the skills of Hillis (322 rushing yards, 4 TD, 16 receptions), a 250-pound former fullback who has racked up 246 yards and carried the ball 49 times over the past two weeks. The ex-Bronco's ability to grind out yards should help offset whatever rustiness Delhomme (227 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) experiences in the seasoned signal-caller's anticipated return, though the gritty Cajun will need to cut down his recent propensity for turnovers in order for the Browns to have a chance. He was intercepted twice in the Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers and has been picked off an alarming 25 times over his past 13 starts. Look for Cleveland to incorporate the tight ends often when throwing the ball, as Benjamin Watson (18 receptions, 1 TD) emerged as Wallace's preferred target during the latter's time under center and athletic backup Evan Moore (4 receptions, 1 TD) put up 87 yards on three catches when working with Delhomme in the opener. A young group of wide receivers has been more hit-or-miss, with return specialist Josh Cribbs (12 receptions, 1 TD) and slotman Chansi Stuckey (10 receptions) having been the most reliable members of the pack.
Delhomme will need to be careful against a playmaking Atlanta secondary that's produced a league-best eight interceptions so far and at least two picks in each of the last three games. Cornerback Brent Grimes (12 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PD) has been putting together an excellent campaign opposite Dunta Robinson (16 tackles, 3 PD), the team's marquee free-agent pickup during the offseason, while third-year pro Thomas DeCoud (19 tackles, 1 INT) is a budding star at free safety. The talented backfield is supported by a trio of proven pass rushers in ends John Abraham (7 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kroy Biermann (9 tackles, 1 sack) and tackle Jonathan Babineaux (7 tackles, 2 sacks), all of whom are part of a deep rotation along the front line. Thumper Curtis Lofton (32 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) anchors the run defense from his middle linebacker spot, but it's unclear whether strongside starter and 2010 first- round pick Sean Weatherspoon (24 tackles, 1 sack) can make it back from an ankle injury that kept him out of last week's contest. The team does have a more than capable replacement in Stephen Nicholas (19 tackles), who's coming off a 13-tackle (12 solo) effort against the 49ers.
Expect the running backs to take center stage in this game, and there are two good ones worth using in Hillis and Turner. The former has scored a touchdown in each of the first four games of the season, while the latter has amassed double-digit scores in back-to-back years and only faces a mild threat to his workload from Snelling. White and Gonzalez are two other must-starts among Atlanta players, while Bryant is currently tied for the league lead with 10 field goals and merits strong consideration at kicker. Ryan seems to be in an attractive spot as well, as the Cleveland defense has given up a slew of passing yards and touchdowns the past couple of weeks. There's really not a whole lot of options you can count on from the Browns' side other than Hillis, though Cribbs is a decent play in leagues that reward return yardage. Delhomme isn't a recommended choice, but since the erratic quarterback has been known to give away the football at times, the Atlanta defense could be a good selection.
The comparative records of these two teams may suggest a potential mismatch, but the Browns have been in every game this year and three of Atlanta's four contests have gone down to the wire, so there's little reason not to believe this one won't be competitive as well. The Falcons have been vulnerable to giving up the big play on defense, but they'll benefit from a Cleveland squad that doesn't possess much firepower and will likely be starting a quarterback with limited mobility who hasn't played in four weeks. Atlanta has been very adept at forcing turnovers, though, and should be able to pressure the mistake-prone Delhomme into a couple of mistakes that will turn the tide in the visitors' favor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 23, Browns 17
10/07 16:44:39 ET