- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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The New York Jets (2-2) return to the prime-time stage for the second time in 25 days, facing the underachieving Atlanta Falcons (1-3) on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." This is a tough spot for the Jets.
They've lost four straight on the road, dating to last season, with a staggering minus-14 turnover margin. Under QB Matt Ryan, the Falcons are 34-6 at the Georgia Dome.
Ah, but life isn't peachy in the peach state. The Falcons are trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2007, before Ryan and coach Mike Smith arrived. They've already lost as many games as they did last season, and they realize a loss to the Jets could cripple their Super Bowl dreams.
In other words, the Falcons are desperate, and desperate teams with talent are dangerous. They're going into their bye week, and no team wants to sit on a three-game losing streak for two weeks.
What to watch for:
1. House money: There's no pressure on the Jets; it's all on the Falcons, who know there's only a five percent chance of a 1-4 team making the playoffs. No one is giving Rex Ryan's team much of a chance, but he's at his best as the heavy underdog. He spent the week talking up the Falcons' offense and Ryan, saying he's a notch below Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but it's hard to believe he actually believes that.
2. QBs on the hot seat: Geno Smith needs to steady himself -- and the team -- after an awful performance in Tennessee. Unfortunately for him, he's not at MetLife Stadium. In two road losses, he has only one touchdown pass and seven turnovers, unraveling in both cases after his first turnover. If the Falcons get to him early, it could be a long night for the Jets. Smith has to be smart and protect the ball, a huge emphasis in practice. His turnover count, already at 11, is growing faster than the national debt.
Believe it or not, Ryan is feeling some heat from a frustrated fan base in Atlanta. His passer rating is an impressive 97.7, but they're averaging only 23.5 points per game, largely because of persistent problems in the red zone. In two of their three losses, Ryan had the ball inside the opponents' 7-yard line at the end of the game, with a chance to pull out a win. The results: An interception and loss of possession on downs. Ryan, criticized for not being able to win the big one, apparently can't score the big one, either.
3. A 2012 feel at receiver: Without Santonio Holmes (hamstring), the Jets will start Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill, who suffered a concussion only eight days ago. You can win with that tandem, but there are questions beyond them. Clyde Gates (knee) is questionable, and neither David Nelson (signed last Tuesday) and Michael Campbell (promoted from the practice squad) has played a down this season. And, let's not forget, TE Kellen Winslow (knee) is questionable. You have to think Winslow will tough it out on his bad knee, but he missed a lot of practice time, as did Hill. That impacts continuity, especially with a rookie quarterback who needs reps.
4. Marty under the microscope: This game will tell us a lot about offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. His quarterback is struggling with turnovers and his receivers are nicked up, so the logical plan of attack is to feed Bilal Powell, who began Week 5 as the AFC co-leader in rushing. Then again, Mornhinweg isn't a Ground & Pound kind of guy and he probably will try to exploit the Falcons' suspect pass defense. They're allowing 301 yards per game, including four plays of 40+ yards. The possible return of CB Asante Samuel (thigh) will help the Falcons, but they're vulnerable in the slot. Nickel back Robert McClain has allowed a 149 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. Bottom line: Don't expect Mornhinweg to radically change his approach.
5. Secondary revenge: The Jets' secondary should be in an ornery mood after getting carved up last week by Jake Locker and Ryan Fitzpatrick. They allowed four touchdown passes and a 129.8 passer rating, and now here comes WR Julio Jones, who leads the league in receiving yards and ranks second in yards-after-the-catch. Ryan has completed 73 percent of his throws to Jones, who is adept at using his 6-foot-3 frame to overpower corners. If the Jets can neutralize Jones, they win the game. The question is, how? He routinely beats double coverage.
The Jets will have to provide over-the-top help with a safety, but that would impact their ability to defend TE Tony Gonzalez in the middle of the field. Rex Ryan has to play the Falcons' tendencies, knowing which player to double in certain situations. You can bet he'll double Gonzalez in the red zone. He'll go to school on how his brother, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, defended the future Hall of Fame in Week 1.
27mEric D. Williams