NFL Preview - Atlanta (2-0) at New England (1-1)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Will the real New England Patriots please stand up?
Or, perhaps the correct question, who are the real New England Patriots?
The smart NFL money heading into this season was that the long-time AFC powerhouse from Foxboro - buoyed by the return of glamour-boy quarterback Tom Brady from a knee injury - would re-ascend to its usual place of prominence both in its division and the conference as a whole.
After all, it was just 19 months ago that coach Bill Belichick & Co. completed a historic 18-0 trip through the regular season and playoffs, only to be denied immortality by an aggressive bunch of New York Giants.
The championship drumbeat was to continue last season with a vengeance, but was interrupted in Week 1 when Brady crumpled to the turf and left the orchestra in the hands of relative novice Matt Cassel, who'd not started a competitive game since high school.
And when Cassel and Co. won 11 games and came within a hair's breadth of reaching the playoffs in Brady's absence, the smart money cognoscenti deemed it a sure thing that 2009's ultimate destination would be an early 2010 trip to the Super Bowl in Miami.
But after two weeks on the field, it doesn't look like such a lock.
Brady and his Pats escaped with their lives - and a 1-0 record - from a Week 1 disaster against Buffalo, scoring twice in the final three minutes to turn a 24-13 deficit into a 25-24 win.
The spin afterward?
Brady - the league's standing definition of clutch - was back.
But then came Week 2.
After hearing trash talk all week from their annual whipping boys in East Rutherford, the Patriots traveled south to face the Jets in what most thought would be a painful comeuppance for rookie coach Rex Ryan, rookie QB Mark Sanchez and loudmouth defensive back Kerry Rhodes.
Instead, the Jets won, 16-9, holding the Patriots without a touchdown for the first time since 2006 and eliciting noticeable frustration from Brady, all- world wideout Randy Moss and perhaps even the grey-hoodied coach whose bust is already reserved for Canton.
And now, the smart money could be changing hands.
"For a while now there has been this feeling, accepted with little question, that the Patriots would pick up where they left off in 2007 just as soon as Tom Brady came back from his knee injury," said FOXSports.com columnist Mark Kriegel. "That's not going to happen.
"His Patriots will get better. But they'll never be what they were."
This week, they face yet another prospect looking to take their place.
The Atlanta Falcons - who went from four wins to 11 wins in one season with first-year coach Mike Smith and rookie passer Matt Ryan - are back at it again in 2009, winning consecutive games against 2008 playoff teams while welcoming new veteran Tony Gonzalez into the fold.
The Kansas City escapee has caught 12 balls for 144 yards and two touchdowns in two outings as a Falcon and has already created a bit of matchup concern among the powers-that-be in the New England defensive war room.
"I think there's several guys. We just have to figure out which one is the best matchup physically, and maybe he matches up for the kind of routes and the kind of things this guy does," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "Whether he's a physical tight end and does route-routing or he's more of a finesse tight end, it's going to probably vary from week to week.
"We're going to use different personnel. It might not be the same guy twice. Sometimes it might be more than one guy. It's whatever personnel we have available, and based on the kind of tight end and the person we're playing."
Atlanta has a 6-5 edge in its all-time series with New England, but was a 31-28 home loser when the clubs last met, during the 2005 campaign. The Patriots have won two straight in the series since suffering a a 41-10 home rout during the 1998 season. The Pats won the previous home game in the series, a 25-17 triumph in 1986 at Foxboro Stadium.
Belichick is 2-1 against Atlanta in his career as a head coach, with the loss coming for his Browns against the Falcons during the 1993 season. The Falcons' Mike Smith will be meeting both Belichick and the Pats for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
If the Falcons get a lead, they generally keep it. Atlanta is 13-1 under Smith in games it has led at halftime. Ryan returns home - or at least close to it - after posting a 25-7 mark at Boston College and earning 2007 ACC player of the year honors. He is 4-1 against the AFC and the Falcons are 7-0 in games where his passer rating is 100 or better. It was 122.2 last week against Carolina. On the ground, second-year Falcon Michael Turner has rushed for 509 yards in his last five games against AFC foes, scoring five times. When he carries the ball 19 times or more, his teams are 13-1. Among the receivers, wideout Roddy White had a TD catch last week and has four 100-yard games in his last six tries against the AFC. And the aforementioned Gonzalez, who leads the team with 12 catches, had a career-best 147 yards in 11 receptions against the Patriots in 2000 while with the Chiefs. His reception streak now stands at 133 games.
On the other side, departures and injuries have been the signature story thus far for New England. No longer in the fold are veterans Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison - both of whom retired after last season - as well as Richard Seymour, who was traded to Oakland; and Mike Vrabel, who went to Kansas City. Also absent is linebacker Jerod Mayo, the AFC's defensive rookie of the year last season, who suffered a knee injury in Week 1 against the Bills. The Patriots addressed that situation to some extent this week, trading for Baltimore linebacker Prescott Burgess. Among the present, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain has a team-best two sacks and end Ty Warren recorded his first of the season against Sanchez last week. New England has yet to record an interception, though as a unit it's allowed just 265 yards per game - third- best in the league.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Brady's been nothing if not busy in his return to starting, throwing 100 passes in the first two weeks for 594 yards - third-best in the AFC. He's connected for two touchdowns and had two interceptions, contributing to an uncharacteristically low 76.8 passer rating. That said, he's won both career starts against the Falcons and is 22-4 against the NFC with a 96.8 passer mark. Among his targets, as usual, Moss has a league-best 16 catches through two weeks and is second in league history with 60 100-yard games. He has 14 catches for 215 yards in his last two meetings with the Falcons. Elsewhere, rookie Julian Edelman stepped in for the injured Wes Welker last week and caught eight passes for 98 yards in his NFL debut. Welker did not practice again on Wednesday. On the ground, veteran Fred Taylor's 17 carries for 71 yards leads the team through two weeks, while Laurence Maroney has three TDs in his last three games against NFC foes.
For Atlanta, pressuring the quarterback and forcing mistakes have been key factors in the early going. The Falcons have a plus-four turnover margin through two weeks and have gotten two sacks apiece from ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann. Abraham, drafted by the Jets in the first round in 2000, has 86 sacks since his debut, second-most among active players. He has nine sacks and four forced-fumbles in his career against the Patriots, and when he has two or more sacks in a game, his teams are 13-3. Elsewhere, linebacker Mike Peterson aims for a third straight game against the Patriots with at least one sack, while he and cornerback Chris Houston share the team lead with an interception apiece.
For the Patriots, Brady and Moss remain no-brainers as long as they're upright and healthy. Also, whatever part of the Welker/Edelman combination is playing merits a look as well. For the Falcons, Ryan and Gonzalez have formed a point- scoring tandem, while Turner will get his touches and White is usually a good bet to come in somewhere near 100 yards with a big play or two. Based on the potential prowess of the opposing offenses, neither defense is a sure pick, though the Falcons can move the needle with sacks and turnovers against most foes.
After two straight desultory performances against divisional rivals, this becomes the true "barometer game" for the Patriots in assessing just how far, if any, the kingpins have fallen. Add a quality young foe eager to establish itself and you have a classic matchup of upstart vs. established. The hunch here is that New England will still make plenty of noise before the season is over, and the foundation for that ruckus is laid here this week. Brady is Brady. Moss is Moss. And the Patriots are the Patriots. At least until otherwise notified.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 28, Falcons 17
09/24 10:56:27 ET