The Patriots begin what should be their toughest three-game stretch of the season Sunday in Atlanta (8:30 p.m., NBC), following what was originally perceived to be three layups in Weeks 1-3.
The Bills, Jets and Buccaneers certainly don’t look like playoff teams by any stretch of the imagination. But all three gave the Pats problems at times this September. In other words, this isn’t a 2007-style 3-0 record for New England. Absolutely no one is predicting perfection this time around. In fact, most pundits believe Matt Ryan and crew will be the first team to blemish the Pats' scorecard this season.
Here are three things to watch for Sunday night in the land of peaches and hip-hop artists:
1. Put Matty on ice
The Patriots defense looks as good as it has at any time since Bill Belichick last hoisted the Lombardi. Whether this is due to inferior competition in the early stages of this season or not remains up for debate.
Matt Ryan will be the first Pro Bowl level QB the Patriots have seen this season. But he can be flustered, and when he is, the record shows that Atlanta loses. Ryan threw an INT in the Falcons’ opener in New Orleans and threw a pick in Miami last week. Atlanta lost both games. Ryan did not throw an INT at the Georgia Dome against St. Louis in Week 2 and the Falcons came out winners.
Ryan is known to force matters when he gets pressure up the middle, so if Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly bring their A-games the Pats can certainly keep the scoring down.
2. Win on the ground
Even with Shane Vereen on the shelf, the Patriots have a deeper backfield than the Falcons, who will once again be without starter Steven Jackson (hamstring). Jacquizz Rodgers is serviceable for Atlanta, but he has never rushed for more than 100 yards in an NFL game.
The Pats ran a trifecta of backs at Tampa Bay last week, with LeGarrette Blount (14 carries, 65 yards), Stevan Ridley (11 carries, 35 yards) and even Brandon Bolden (three carries, 51 yards) sharing the carries. One would expect the Pats to go back to basics with Ridley, however, as he remains the best back in New England despite his ball control issues.
3. Attack Atlanta’s young defense
Aside from players like Osi Umenyiora and Asante Samuel, the Falcons’ defense is inexperienced, as Atlanta has been forced to start rookies at linebacker and the corner position opposite Samuel. The group allowed over 400 yards of offense to both the Saints and Rams and were stomped in the late stages of last Sunday’s loss to Miami.
Tom Brady and the young receiving corps need to be better on hitting on long passing plays as Brady’s completion percentage on throws of 20-plus yards this season is just 15.4.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter @BurkeMetroBOS