When the NFL released its schedule this offseason, the first instinct for many -- this reporter included -- was to scan the 16-game run down and circle contests of note.
The first two weeks of the season offered the usual intrigue associated with division games, while Week 3 was another look at Darrelle Revis, though this time in a white jersey and pewter pants for the Bucs.
But things really got interesting in Week 4, with the Patriots traveling to Atlanta for a Sunday night showdown against the Falcons, a team many were already prognosticating as a Super Bowl favorite. The high-powered Falcons' offense added hard-charging running back Steven Jackson in free agency, providing a needed boost to complement one of the most diverse and lethal passing attacks in the league.
Things haven’t started quite as planned for the Falcons, who have dropped a pair of road games that sandwiched a Week 2 win against the Rams.
But it’s early.
And that’s why Sunday night is one of the most anticipated games of the weekend and could prove to be one of the more exciting games for the Patriots this regular season. The challenge is a great one for the Patriots, looking to improve to 4-0 for the first time since 2007.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for come Sunday night.
1. Gronk/Amendola watch. Truth be told, until tight end Rob Gronkowski makes his regular-season return, his status will be a primary storyline entering each game. And yet, this Sunday looks possible, as he once again took part in each practice this week (on a limited basis) and is more than 14 weeks removed from offseason back surgery. The Patriots' offense has averaged just 19.7 points per game thus far without Gronkowski (and two of those games have been without Danny Amendola), reaffirming his importance. Amendola, meanwhile, could be a longer shot to play, but he too has taken part in practice each day this week on a limited basis. If one or both of these players were to return to the lineup, it’d present a massive boost for the Patriots' offense. ESPN's John Clayton is reporting it's not likely either will play Sunday night. [UPDATE: Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET -- Gronkowski and Amendola did not travel with the team to Atlanta and won't play, per Adam Schefter.]
2. Slowing Jones. The Atlanta offense has an abundance of talent, but no player presents more of a challenge than wide receiver Julio Jones, who leads the NFL in both catches and receiving yards. Fellow wideout Roddy White has been limited by an ankle injury thus far, but defenses still haven’t been able to find a way to slow down Jones. Bill Belichick was effusive in his praise for Jones during the week, and one area to be focused on is how the Patriots defend him as a vertical threat. He has the length and speed to stretch a secondary down the field, with Matt Ryan among the more accurate downfield throwers to accompany Jones’ range. This could be a week where Devin McCourty is used to shade to the side of the field that Jones aligns to.
3. Running backs –- on both sides of the ball. The Patriots, as we know, used three running backs in featured roles during Week 3, but weren’t the only team to go with a by-committee approach. The Falcons, who were without Jackson in Week 3 (and likely will be again in Week 4), relied upon both Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling to combine for nearly 200 yards of total offense. How will each running back rotation play out this weekend? Might the Patriots ride the hottest hand and again feature Brandon Bolden early? Or will Stevan Ridley reassume his top back status? For the Falcons, count on Rodgers to be the starter and early down back, with Snelling providing straight-line running and very good pass catching in a reserve role.
4. Fast start. The Falcons have been successful to open games, outscoring their opponents 31-0 in the first quarter of games this season. That puts the pressure on the Patriots' offense to find its rhythm early on in the game so as not to have to play catch up with the Falcons. Complicating the matter will be the boisterous crowd in Atlanta, aided by a dome that captures and echoes sound. Communication, particularly non-verbal signaling, will be critical to counter the noise factor.
5.Young Falcons cornerbacks. Like the Patriots' receiving corps on the other side of the ball, the Falcons have a youthful set of cornerbacks. Atlanta used its top two picks in this year’s draft on Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, each of whom is already playing a prominent role. Veteran Asante Samuel, a familiar face in New England, is the other top cornerback for Atlanta, but it’ll be a heavy dose of rookie-on-rookie showdowns come Sunday night. Kenbrell Thompkins got on track last Sunday, scoring the first two touchdowns of his career. We’ll see whether Tom Brady will try to pick on the talented Falcons cornerbacks and whether his own young receiving corps can deliver.