The undermanned New England Patriots face their stiffest test of the young season Sunday night as they head to the Georgia Dome to take on the high-octane Atlanta Falcons. The Patriots are off to a surprise 3-0 start despite being without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski and losing wide receiver Danny Amendola in Week 1. The Falcons are off to a slow start but still boast one of the most formidable offenses in the NFC.
Here's the breakdown in our betting tale of the tape:
Of all the tricks quarterback Tom Brady has pulled in his Hall of Fame career, leading the current incarnation of the Patriots to three straight season opening wins may be one of his most impressive. While Brady hasn't been as efficient as past seasons, he has been successful at spreading the ball around while throwing just two interceptions to date. The running game has yet to get untracked, with starter Stevan Ridley averaging a pedestrian 3.4 yards per carry.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has also had to do without a key offensive component - wide receiver Roddy White has yet to get healthy - but has an alternate option in Julio Jones (373 receiving yards, two TDs) that easily outperforms any pass-catcher the Patriots have. An injury to starting running back Steven Jackson opened the door for unheralded No. 3 Jason Snelling, who racked up 111 all-purpose yards in last week's narrow loss to Miami.
While the offense is still a work in progress, the New England defense has been a revelation. The Patriots are allowing 309 total yards per game - tied with Kansas City for the eighth-lowest mark in the league - and have been particularly stingy against the pass, surrendering fewer than 190 yards through the air per contest. The Patriots' plus-three turnover differential is fourth-best in the AFC, behind only the Chiefs, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts.
The Falcons could be forgiven for failing to contain the New Orleans Saints' pass-happy offense in a Week 1 loss, but allowing nearly 600 combined passing yards to St. Louis and Miami is cause for concern. Atlanta ranks 25th against the pass entering Week 4, a stat that at least partially overshadows what has been a stout run defense to date (79 yards against per game). The Falcons have a turnover differential of zero (four giveaways, four takeaways).
Edge: New England
The Patriots are still waiting to break a big punt return - their longest is 17 yards - but have been consistently solid, averaging 12.1 yards per return - good for third in the league. They haven't had nearly the same level of success in kickoff returns, ranked 21st in the NFL at 21 yards per return. The Patriots have only had four kick returns through the first three weeks, with a long return of 25 yards.
Atlanta has had one of the most anemic return games in the NFL entering Sunday night. The Falcons are the only team in the league with just one kickoff return - and it went for just 17 yards, giving them the worst average among the 32 teams. Atlanta hasn't fared much better in the punt return game, bringing back seven attempts for 29 yards - leaving it with a 4.1-yard average that ranks tied for 26th with the New York Giants.
Edge: New England
"I think throwing an interception to a strong safety last week doesn't help, especially (when) two plays before I had a wide-open guy. I think plays like that are more the problem. I have to do a good job finding the open guys, guys that are running free and then hit them. That will help our red-zone offense more than anything." – Patriots quarterback Tom Brady
"We have to have more vertical shots in our game. That's something that we are probably lacking right now. We just have to get more of an element of the vertical game. There are multiple factors in there that I’m not going to get into. There is more than one reason, but you are not scaring the defense if you’re not threatening vertically, that’s for sure.” – Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter