The Patriots head to Atlanta with the NFL’s second-longest win streak, having won four in a row, and their last two losses -- to the Buccaneers by two points and to the Cowboys in overtime -- are as respectable as losses come. This is a hot team with a stingy defense and a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones coming off his most efficient game of the season. Much the opposite can be said of Atlanta, which just combined a thoroughly embarrassing defensive performance with a season-worst outing for veteran QB Matt Ryan. In short, it’s a matchup of teams headed in opposite directions. It’s also, of course, a rematch of Super Bowl LI, featuring the Falcons’ epic collapse. Let’s hope Atlanta doesn’t build a 28-3 lead at any point -- if it does, the Twitter comedians will be insufferable.
Here are four things to watch Thursday night when the Falcons play host to the Patriots:
- The Falcons offense is ailing. The Swiss Army knife of the Falcons offense, Cordarrelle Patterson, is unlikely to play as he recovers from an ankle sprain on a short week of preparation. His absence would compound problems for a handcuffed Atlanta attack that is also missing its top receiver in Calvin Ridley, who is on a personal leave. Promising rookie TE Kyle Pitts will be Ryan’s go-to option, but he’s a tight end in name only. Pitts has lined up wide on 28% of his snaps, more than any tight end in the league, and in the slot another 43%, per Next Gen Stats. He’ll thus draw more coverage from cornerbacks than linebackers and safeties. This will be no easy task for Ryan.
- New England’s rushing attack finds its footing. The Patriots’ average of 114.5 rushing yards per game renders a middle-of-the-pack ranking, but of late, they’ve pounded the rock for quite an uptick. Over New England’s four-game win streak, they’ve averaged 156.3 yards on the ground. In classic Bill Belichick fashion, the surge has been fueled by an unlikely hero in rookie fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson, who’s run for 162 yards on 30 carries over the last two weeks. He headlined the rushing attack Sunday with Damien Harris unavailable due to a concussion. With Harris having cleared concussion protocol and set to play, expect more of the same from the Pats' re-energized rushing attack.
- Can Atlanta’s pass rush get to the quarterback? Falcons edge rusher Dante Fowler simply hasn’t made the impact the club needed, and while blame for the worst pass rush in the NFL can’t fall on his shoulders alone, Fowler is the face of it. In his second game back from a stint on injured reserve, Atlanta needs a spark from the former No. 3 overall draft pick. Jones is a much different quarterback when pressured (66.8 rating) than not (100.7), and as should be expected with any rookie, he hasn't thrived against the blitz.
- What’s next for Christian Barmore? The Patriots rookie defensive tackle is quickly trending upward. His snap count has risen steadily, and he was singled out earlier this month by coach Bill Belichick for his professionalism and improvement. Although he’s gotten home for just half a sack on the season, Barmore’s 31 pressures rank eighth in the NFL at his position. He’s played more at left defensive tackle than right, which will create an intriguing matchup against Falcons right guard Chris Lindstrom, who ranks as the No. 9 guard in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. A winning night against Lindstrom would be a big notch in the rookie’s belt.