Falcons gear up for date with Patriots

Heady with success, the Atlanta Falcons head to the road for the first time. Following dominant wins over Miami and Carolina, the Falcons face the unenviable task of visiting New England.

Then again, this trip might not be the overwhelming challenge most teams have faced this decade in Foxborough. The Patriots are struggling to find a rhythm and ways to better protect Tom Brady.

So far, the Falcons have looked more like the Patriots than New England has.

"The fact that we are able to have a fast start at 2-0 is huge for us," said Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli. "The fact we can go out there and just prove to ourselves and everybody that last year wasn't a fluke and we are a good team. We're not a wishy-washy, up-and-down type of organization. We're the type who can be good and be good for a long time, and with the players we have here and the coaches and assistants we have in place, I think we're set to do that."

The Patriots have only done that for eight years, but they've looked vulnerable on offense and defense in a one-point victory over Buffalo and a 16-9 loss to the Jets in which New York was the more physical, more aggressive and, dare we say it, better-coached team.

The biggest concern is needing Brady to throw so much - 100 times already - and his getting battered by pass rushers. Ideally, Brady would have gotten some time after missing last season to become reacquainted with the dangers of playing quarterback in the NFL. Instead, he's been pressured almost nonstop, and the Falcons already have five sacks.

"We've been behind in these games, the second half last week of our own doing. Obviously, in the Buffalo game we were behind the whole game," Brady said. "So it forces you to throw the ball a little bit more and play on their terms."

Bill Belichick's teams rarely play on other teams' terms, so how the Patriots adjust this week will be worth watching.

Elsewhere Sunday, it's Washington at Detroit; Tennessee at the New York Jets; Green Bay at St. Louis; Cleveland at Baltimore; San Francisco at Minnesota; Jacksonville at Houston; the New York Giants at Tampa Bay; Kansas City at Philadelphia; Chicago at Seattle; New Orleans at Buffalo; Miami at San Diego; Denver at Oakland; Pittsburgh at Cincinnati; and Indianapolis at Arizona.

On Monday night, Carolina is at Dallas.


Indianapolis (2-0) at Arizona (1-1)

Indy's offense can't possibly be tired after having the ball for less than 15 minutes in the muggy Miami night. Against Arizona, whose offense is far superior to the Dolphins', Peyton Manning and the Colts probably need to double their time of possession Sunday night.

This is a matchup of two exceedingly durable quarterbacks in Manning and Kurt Warner. An edge goes to the Cardinals because they should have most of their receivers healthy and in-tune with Warner. Manning is working with some raw wideouts to go with Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark.

San Francisco (2-0) at Minnesota (2-0)

A 49ers victory would stamp them not only as a potential playoff team, but perhaps as the Cardinals of 2009, coming from nowhere to the top of the NFC West, and conceivably higher. To get that win, the Niners need to run with Frank Gore, who comes off a 207-yard effort against Seattle, when he joined Barry Sanders as the only players in NFL history with two touchdowns rushing of at least 79 yards in the same game.

Of course, Minnesota has the NFL's top running back in Adrian Peterson, who is leading the league with 272 yards and has four TDs. Brett Favre is 11-2 against the 49ers, including the playoffs.

Tennessee (0-2) at New York Jets (2-0)

Last season, the Titans won their first 10 games en route to the league's best record, 13-3. And no, they aren't trying to go the other way and lose their first 10.

But the home loss to Houston in Week 2 was particularly disturbing because the defense was so mediocre. Maybe the departure of All-Pro DT Albert Haynesworth will have a bigger impact than expected.

The Jets certainly have Rex Appeal after living up to their boasts and beating the Patriots in the Meadowlands for the first time in nine tries. The defense under new coach Rex Ryan has not allowed a touchdown, easing the pressure on rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Kansas City (0-2) at Philadelphia (1-1)

That cracked rib still is limiting QB Donovan McNabb, who might be served best by sitting out, particularly with the Eagles off next weekend. Michael Vick finally is eligible to play after serving out his NFL suspension for dogfighting, which followed his federal prison sentence. He last played in 2006 and it's uncertain what role he will have against the Chiefs. Most likely, it will be a cameo.

Kansas City can't prosper if Larry Johnson doesn't rush well, and he has a mere 98 yards, with a 2.8-yard average per carry.

Washington (1-1) at Detroit (0-2)

If the Lions lose again, it will be 20 straight over three seasons, including all 16 in 2008. That would be second only to the 1976-77 Buccaneers, and they had the excuse of being an expansion franchise when they dropped their first 26.

While Washington doesn't have nearly such hideous numbers, there are issues in D.C., where the offense has been stagnant. Early in his second season as coach, Jim Zorn already is the subject of rampant speculation about when impatient owner Daniel Snyder will can him. If the Skins lose this one, it will feed that fire.

Pittsburgh (1-1) at Cincinnati (1-1)

The Steelers didn't act like Super Bowl champions in throwing away last week's game in Chicago. And the Bengals certainly didn't fit their persona with a gutsy win in Green Bay. Still, Pittsburgh has won five straight in this series and eight in a row in Cincinnati. The loser might have a long chase to catch the Ravens atop the division.

Cleveland (0-2) at Baltimore (2-0)

No team has looked worse in the second half of its first two games than Cleveland, which doesn't seem any more competitive under Eric Mangini than it did playing for Romeo Crennel. Trying to reverse that against the Ravens will be a huge chore, especially now that Baltimore has a dangerous offense (third in the league; the Browns are last) to go with Ray Lewis and company.

Carolina (0-2) at Dallas (1-1), Monday night

If the Cowboys couldn't pull off a victory in the energizing opener of Jerry Jones' $1.5 billion palace, how are they going to get psyched for the Panthers? Well, Jones could threaten to move them back to Texas Stadium, or even the Cotton Bowl, if there's another disappointing result.

The Panthers' top headliners, DE Julius Peppers and QB Jake Delhomme, have been targeted more than anybody for the slow start. Together, they are making $23.1 million this year. Time to start earning it.

Miami (0-2) at San Diego (1-1)

The Dolphins head west after a disheartening loss to the Colts in which they had the ball for more than 45 minutes, but couldn't make the big stops late in the game. They also have the burden of a cross-country trip following a Monday nighter.

San Diego was touted as an AFC power. Then the real season began and the Chargers barely beat Oakland before losing at home to Baltimore. With RB LaDainian Tomlinson hobbled, expect lots of passing by Philip Rivers, who leads the league in yards through the air.

New Orleans (2-0) at Buffalo (1-1)

How much are the good times rolling in Nawlins? The Saints rank first in offense with 936 yards and their 93 points are 22 more than the Ravens, who rank second. Drew Brees has been unstoppable, spreading his passes to 10 receivers, five of whom have scored. Questions about the defense have not been raised much because of how the offense is dominating.

Buffalo has played well in both games and has an interception for a TD in each contest, by Donte Whitner and Aaron Schobel.

Green Bay (1-1) at St. Louis (0-2)

In contrast to the Saints, the Rams have a total of seven points, and they didn't exactly face the elite of the NFL in Seattle and Washington. Until their offensive line jells, which will be difficult with starters Jason Smith and Jason Brown plagued by sprained knees, the scoreboard will be bare.

Green Bay also has significant OL issues and has allowed 10 sacks, six last week to the Bengals - yes, the Bengals - with five of them by Antwan Odom. At that rate, Aaron Rodgers has no shot of coming within 100 consecutive starts of the league record set by predecessor Favre.

New York Giants (2-0) at Tampa Bay (0-2)

Eli Manning's young receiving corps might have already answered all their doubters. And with the way the Giants came back at Cowboys Stadium, it's nearly impossible to imagine them panicking under any circumstances. They could easily have their way with the struggling Bucs, who have been particularly weak on defense, something even more unimaginable considering the previous years.

Denver (2-0) at Oakland (1-1)

Now that they have taken care of NFL Ohio, the Broncos get an archrival, in the Black Hole. For all the criticism sent new coach Josh McDaniels' way, his team could take early control of the AFC West by winning.

Despite nearly being 2-0, the Raiders have problems, especially on offense, where QB JaMarcus Russell has yet to resemble anything close to a first overall draft pick. But the running game has promise.

Chicago (1-1) at Seattle (1-1)

The injury bug is ravaging the Seahawks yet again, and if QB Matt Hasselbeck can't go, this goes from a winnable home game to a difficult chore. All-world tackle Walter Jones and cornerback Marcus Trufant already have missed time.

Chicago impressed on defense against Pittsburgh even without star linebacker Brian Urlacher. Credit Lovie Smith's coaching staff for keeping his team positive after the bitter opening loss at Green Bay.

Jacksonville (0-2) at Houston (1-1)

The Texans might have been the league's most disappointing team in Week 1, then they turned around and won at Tennessee as the offense got on track. They can be explosive and will need points every week as long as the D is sieve-like, as it was in both outings.

Jacksonville always has struggled against Houston, even when the Jags were good and the Texans were bottom-feeders.


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