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NFL Preview - Atlanta (7-2) at St. Louis (4-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's right there in black and white. Or in the case of the Atlanta Falcons, black and red.
Ten weeks into the 2010 NFL season, the Falcons stand alone atop the NFC heap with a 7-2 record. And when the AFC portion of the league is brought into the discussion, only two other teams -- the New York Jets and New England Patriots -- have achieved as much through nine games.
Still, it's hard to find true believers, which suits third-year head coach Mike Smith just fine.
"We keep our expectations internally," said Smith, whose Falcons visit the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome this Sunday. "Our goal for our season was to go out and try to be the best team every Sunday, and that's kind of how we've approached it since we've gotten here.
"We want to be very workmanlike and business-like in how we approach the game, and our guys have done a very good job. We've got some very good mentors, older players in our locker room that have really helped get that message out."
Smith took over a franchise in disarray as recently as the end of 2007, when mercenary head coach Bobby Petrino bolted back to college after 15 games and left post-Michael Vick mediocrity under center after Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich called signals en route to a 4-12 finish.
The struggles were rewarded the following April, however, when Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan was plucked with the third overall pick and the team immediately began establishing a new identity.
Ryan won 11-of-16 starts as a playoff-bound rookie in 2008, went 9-5 last year while just missing the postseason, and finds himself mentioned among the league's best in 2010 with a stat sheet that includes a 62.7 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions in 338 attempts.
He's connected 70 times with wideout Roddy White, who's gotten MVP-caliber love from several national radio hosts this season after arriving from UAB as the 27th overall pick in 2005.
White caught 12 of Ryan's passes for 138 yards and two scores in a primetime spotlight last Thursday night against Baltimore, including the game-winning score with 20 seconds remaining.
"It's preparing us for later in the season, and you know playoff games are always going to be tight," White said of the hard-fought win. "We just need to find a way to get through it and find a way to get it done."
Playoffs may not be an imminent destination for this week's opponent in St. Louis, but another young quarterback makes it seem like those days aren't far off.
2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford has been everything advertised and more in his debut season with the Rams, who find themselves just a game out of the division lead in the NFC West in spite of a sub-.500 record at 4-5.
The Oklahoma product has approached Ryan's numbers with a 60.2 completion percentage and 12 touchdowns through the air, but more importantly, he's also gone a long way toward changing the mindset of a franchise that's not won more than it's lost since 2003.
In fact, the Rams' four wins in 2010 are already the most for the club since it went 8-8 in 2006.
"Matt Ryan has done a great job in Atlanta," said Bradford when asked about the Ryan comparisons. "He was put into a very similar situation and I think you can always learn from guys like that. "He's done everything the right way. Anytime you can look at a guy like that and see what he's been able to do, and try to take things from that, it can only help."
The Rams hold a 47-25-2 advantage in the all-time regular-season series between these one-time NFC West rivals, but the Falcons have won two of the last three meetings and dealt St. Louis a 31-27 loss at the Georgia Dome when the teams last squared off, back in the 2008 season finale. Atlanta has lost in each of its last five visits to the Gateway City, however, and hasn't prevailed in the Edward Jones Dome since a 21-10 decision since Nov. 29, 1998. The Falcons are 2-7 lifetime against the Rams in St. Louis.
In addition to the regular-season series, the teams squared off in a 2004 NFC Divisional Playoff, won by the Falcons, 47-17.
Smith is 1-0 against the Rams as a head coach, while the Rams' Steve Spagnuolo will be opposing the Falcons and Smith for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Even against a stingy Ravens defense, Ryan was prolific last week, throwing a career-high 50 times and completing a career-high 32 for 316 yards, three scores and no interceptions to yield a 101.8 rating. In the 13 games in which he's gone 100 or better, the Falcons are a perfect 13-0. Running back Michael Turner busted out for 208 yards and a touchdown the last time he faced the Rams and since 2008, his 32 rush touchdowns are tied for second in the league. Backfield mate Jason Snelling had a 28-yard scoring catch last week and aims for a fourth straight game with at least four receptions. Outside, wideout White goes for a third straight game against the Rams with a touchdown, following up on a 2009 matchup in which he caught 10 passes for 146 yards and a score. He's one 10-catch game away from equaling Andre Rison's club record of seven. Elsewhere, tight end Tony Gonzalez had two scores in his last game against St. Louis, which came while with Kansas City in 2006.
Spagnuolo has brought the defensive mentality with him from his days with the New York Giants and it's reflected in the numbers, which have the Rams sixth in the league in scoring defense (18.2 points per game) and sixth in the league against the run (allowing 97.8 yards per game). They've been slightly less stingy against the pass while surrendering 228 yards per week, but quarterbacks have completed just 58.4 percent of throws for only 10 touchdowns against eight interceptions. The overall yardage total of 325.8 per game is 12th-best in the league among defenses. Among the players, safety Oshiomogho Atogwe had an interception with a 27-yard return in a December 2007 game with Atlanta, and his 20 picks since 2006 are fifth-most in the league. Linebacker James Laurinaitis shoots for a third straight game with a sack, while end James Hall has recorded five quarterback takedowns in his last four home games and has recorded at least one in two of his last three games against the Falcons. He had a sack and a forced fumble last week. Also, end Chris Long has five sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in his last four games. A sack this week will give him one in five straight contests.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
The rookie Bradford looks like the real deal so far and aims for a fifth straight win in St. Louis. His 4-1 record at the Edward Jones Dome makes him the only No. 1 overall quarterback to win four of his first five home starts since the common draft began in 1967. He's on a streak of 138 passes without an interception. Among his weapons, running back Steven Jackson rushed for 161 yards and two scores while compiling 215 yards from scrimmage in his last game against Atlanta. In his last two matchups with the Falcons, Jackson's gone for 382 yards from scrimmage and scored three times, while his average of 121.2 scrimmage yards since 2006 is best in the NFL among players with a minimum of 50 games played. Versatile wideout/kick returner Danny Amendola had seven catches for 51 yards and a score last week and aims for a fourth game in a row with a touchdown catch. Elsewhere, wideout Brandon Gibson had eight catches for 72 yards last week and goes for a third straight game with six or more catches.
On defense, Atlanta has been at the top of the middle of the pack in terms of numbers, holding foes to a 19.4 points per game average that's good for eighth in the league, and a 98.1 yards per game average on the ground that's seventh- best out of 32 teams. That said, the Falcons' rate of 343.4 total yards allowed per week is good for just 17th place in the league and their 245.3 passing yards allowed per game is 23rd. Quarterbacks have completed 67.3 percent of throws against them, accounting for 16 touchdowns against 14 interceptions and an 88.7 rating. Among the players, veteran end John Abraham had a pair of sacks last week, upping his total since 2000 to 97 1/2, which is second-best in the league. Cornerback Brent Grimes seeks an interception for the third straight game and end Kroy Biermann had a sack in his last meeting with the Rams. Curtis Lofton is tops on the team with 73 tackles (61 solo), while Grimes and William Moore have three interceptions apiece.
Ryan and White are climbing the charts in terms of prodigious QB/WR tandems and should be locks as starters for any owners fortunate to have one or both. The Rams' stoutness against the run limits the Atlanta ground options, though Turner has done more against better foes. Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant is a solid bet as a drive-closer as well. For St. Louis, Bradford is working his way toward middling-level starter, as are Gibson and Amendola at the receiver spots. Truth told, kicker Josh Brown might be the most worthy Rams player this week.
The football world is crammed full of folks who've yet to embrace the Falcons as a true NFC elite in spite of a conference-leading record. A road test against a rising and youth-laden team, especially with a marquee test against Baltimore just passed and another against Green Bay a week away, will be an interesting barometer. Based on those specs, we'll call for the upset here while expecting the spunky Bradford to make a play late to provide decisive points.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Rams 27, Falcons 26
11/18 18:58:46 ET