Patriots at Falcons
8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Falcons by 1
Meaningful Week 4 NFL analysis requires us to ask four questions of each team:
Who have you played?
Who has been healthy?
How have you won or lost?
How has it been covered?
The last question is crucial. None of us are immune from magical TwinkleBrady or Fire Everybody storylines, and it is easy to forget that out-of-spotlight teams do the same things that buzzy teams do: endure injuries, win or lose on last second plays, cope with good and bad luck.
For the Patriots', the answers to the four questions are:
Two teams with rookie quarterbacks who did not even have full training camps to prepare, and one whose quarterback is acting like he dreams of selling real estate three years from now.
None of the Patriots' key receivers.
Last minute field-goal drive against weak opponent, late defensive stand in pouring rain against weak opponent, slow-developing blowout of weak opponent.
A mix of Chicken Little "dream has died" histrionics and magical TwinkleBrady, which is how every narrow Patriots victory since 2006 has been covered.
Here are the Falcons' answers:
Two currently-undefeated teams on the road, both of whom took major steps to improve themselves in the offseason. Also, the compellingly awful (occasionally awfully compelling) Rams.
Not Roddy White, even when he has played. Not Steven Jackson. Julio Jones has also played through injuries; both White and Jones took numerous snaps off against the Dolphins. Left tackle Sam Baker also missed the Dolphins game.
Impressive final Falcons drive falls three-yards short versus Saints; basic weird Rams game; impressive final drive by the Dolphins does not come up short.
No one covers the Falcons anymore because the whole Matt Ryan/Mike Smith/Deep Playoff Run routine of theirs is soooooo 2011.
After answering all four questions honestly, it is easy to see that the early-season differences between the Falcons and Patriots come down to the differences between a trip to New Orleans to face Drew Brees and a trip to Buffalo to face a rookie making his first start after 33 preseason passes, or facing the Dolphins when everything is clicking instead of the unclickable Buccaneers. Both the Patriots and Falcons are perennial playoff teams enduring skill-position injury crises. Play-for-play, the Falcons may be a little better than the Patriots; that would be a safer assertion if they could get through a special teams play without incident or penalty.
Week 4 analysis is tricky, especially with an all-pro tight end in "game-time decision" limbo. Sunday night should bring some equity, if not clarity.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Patriots 17