Three years ago, the Atlanta Falcons rolled to a 4-1 record before the Dallas Cowboys threw a wrench into their plans.
The 37-21 defeat exposed a lot of holes in the Falcons that year, and it kept things in perspective. It reminded the players and fans that the young Falcons weren’t quite ready for the big time. But that was three years ago, and as the Cowboys come to Atlanta for a tilt on Sunday Night Football, the 7-0 Falcons have a different outlook on this matchup, this time around.
This time, Atlanta needs to win this game.
Going into the Sunday night game, the Cowboys sit at 3-4 and haven’t been all that impressive. Quarterback Tony Romo has been less than stellar yet again, and wide receiver Dez Bryant is ailing with a hip injury. However, Dallas’ defense will be the best the Falcons have seen so far this season. They’re allowing just 292.4 yards per game — only San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Houston are doing it better.
A week ago, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a nearly-flawless game, completing more than 75 percent of his passes (a season-high) and his defense held the Philadelphia Eagles down, despite a flat second half. This week is a different animal; the Eagles haven’t been playing with much fire, but Dallas will play a full four-quarter game, and if the Falcons don’t keep the offense rolling for all 60 minutes, problems will arise.
One key to winning this game will be early scoring. In these prime-time games, it’s important to get on the board quickly and set the tone as soon as possible. The Falcons did an excellent job of this in their Monday Night Football victory over the Denver Broncos back in Week 2, and it was because their defense forced Peyton Manning to make a lot of mistakes and turn the ball over multiple times in the first quarter. Romo is capable of the same, and the Falcons need to swarm the Cowboys’ signal-caller and demoralize him in the first quarter.
That will be tough due to the absence of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who will miss this game with an ankle injury. He’s one of the defense’s leaders in both sacks and tackles, so the unit will need to find big plays from someone else.
Another pivotal factor will be stopping Dallas wide receiver Miles Austin. In that 2009 game, Austin went off on the Falcons, catching six passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns. If Bryant is hobbled, Austin will be a target that Romo will seek out early and often. If the Falcons can contain Austin, it could lead Romo to force passes and make mistakes.
I used most of the preview to discuss the battle between the Dallas offense and the Atlanta defense because I think the Falcons’ offense will make plenty of plays, even though they’re facing a very good defense. So if the Falcons can find success on defense as well, they should be sitting pretty at 8-0 by the end of the night.