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NFL Week 3 Preview: Falcons vs. Patriots

Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots

One quarterback is beginning a very promising pro career. The other quarterback could be in his twilight years following a career-threatening injury. Both playcallers try to lead their teams to victory when the Atlanta Falcons visit the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon.

Oddsmakers have set the Patriots as 4-point home favorites.

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Second-year QB Matt Ryan has avoided the NFL’s sophomore slump in his first two games of the season. After an impressive rookie campaign, the Boston College product is picking up where he left off. Ryan is fourth in the league in passer rating (108.5) and has totaled 449 yards and five touchdowns through the air. Against the Carolina Panthers in Week 2, Ryan completed 78 percent of his passes and led Atlanta to a 28-20 victory behind 220 passing yards and three touchdowns.

On the other sideline, veteran QB Tom Brady is coming to terms with his dwindling skills. Brady, who missed all but one quarter in 2008 due to a massive knee injury, has yet to find his record-setting form of 2007. He’s totaled 594 yards passing but has connected for just two touchdowns. Brady’s progress was positive after leading a Week 1 comeback victory over the Buffalo Bills. But in last week’s high-profile rivalry with the New York Jets, the former MVP amassed just 219 yards on 23-of-47 passing and failed to find the end zone.

Brady’s early-season struggles have stalled the once-mighty New England offense. The Patriots managed just three field goals and totaled a mere 299 yards of offense against the Jets. However, Brady was without his most popular target, receiver Wes Welker, who missed Sunday’s game with a knee injury.

Welker, who has caught 112 balls in each of the past two seasons, is currently listed as questionable for this week’s tilt. In his place, New England went with veteran Joey Galloway and Julian Edelman, who surprised fans catching eight balls for almost 100 yards. No. 1 WR Randy Moss had trouble shaking the secondary with Welker out and had just four catches for 24 yards. He must get more involved if the Patriots want to spark this offense.

Atlanta’s passing defense could be susceptible to the air attack after failing to contain Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme in Week 2. Carolina’s struggling QB passed for 308 yards, one touchdown, and one interception versus the Falcons. Atlanta couldn’t cover diminutive WR Steve Smith and will have their hands full with the 6-foot-4 Moss. In his last game versus Atlanta, Moss caught five balls for 81 yards and two touchdowns as a member of the Minnesota Vikings in 2003.

The Patriots aren’t the only ones with elite weapons on the wing. New England coach Bill Belichick singled out Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and how important he is to the Atlanta offense. In his first two games with the franchise, the future Hall of Famer has totaled 144 yards and two touchdowns. Sending two defenders at Gonzalez will give Atlanta’s other receiving threat room to operate. Receiver Roddy White has been steady, compiling a total of 95 receiving yards and a touchdown.

New England’s biggest concern will be freezing thundering running back Michael Turner. Coming off a breakout season in 2008, Turner is once again bowling over defenders. He rushed for 105 yards and picked up his first score of the year against the Panthers. The Patriots’ run stop had a tough time with New York’s running tandem and watched Bills second-string RB Fred Jackson do damage on the ground in Week 1. However, they may not have to deal with Falcons backup RB Jerious Norwood, who left Sunday’s game with a concussion.

The Falcons were in deep against Carolina’s running tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, allowing 144 combined yards and a score on the ground. In Week 1, Atlanta had to deal with the Miami Dolphins’ wildcat formation, giving up 96 yards to Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.

Against New England, the Falcons’ front seven will deal with a four-headed beast. Running backs Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, and Sammy Morris have been sharing carries over the first two weeks of the schedule. Taylor has emerged as the dominant back, totaling 71 yards and a touchdown this season.

Sunday’s total is set at 44.5 points. Both teams have a 1-1 over/under mark to start the season. The Patriots posted an 8-7-1 over/under record in 2008, while the Falcons finished with a 7-9-0 over/under count.

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