Atlanta and Baltimore enter a big stage on a short week.
With just three days to prepare for the NFL’s first Thursday night game since Week 1, both the Falcons and the Ravens have been strapped for time while gearing up for a contest that will serve as a Super Bowl contending measuring stick.
Are the Falcons, at 6-2 and sole possessors of first place in the NFC South, a legitimate contender? Sure, the schedule has been favorable and the only remaining true tests are the Saints and the Packers. But in the NFL, you can’t discount any wins.
Are the Ravens, at 6-2 and tied with Pittsburgh (though they hold the tiebreaker) for the AFC North lead, emerging as the team to beat in the AFC? If the Ravens get past Atlanta, the schedule shakes out favorably with home games against New Orleans and Pittsburgh remaining.
Both teams will play on little rest and on information overload.
"We don't need any sleep,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We're playing Thursday, man. We'll sleep on Friday."
Keys for the Falcons
• The Falcons will need to figure out some sort of protection scheme to keep Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata in check. He’s a disruptive pass-rusher (especially for a down lineman), and Atlanta’s offensive line will have a handful dealing with him, as well as the talented group of Ravens linebackers.
“Ngata's an extremely disruptive player,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “He’s physical, big and strong. Certainly, he's someone we'll have to play well against."
• The Falcons allowed Tampa Bay to convert 62 percent of its third down attempts (8-of-13) on Sunday, something it can’t afford to do against Baltimore. On the majority of third downs this season, Atlanta has blitzed out of various and unique formations. However, opponents have been using max-protect schemes and hitting open receivers underneath. If Atlanta wants to keep sending blitzers, it will have to account for running back Ray Rice out of the backfield. Rice has 31 receptions for 236 yards.
Keys for the Ravens
• It looks like cornerback Josh Wilson will earn the start over Fabian Washington, who hasn’t been effective since Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick accounted for 382 passing yards three weeks ago. The Ravens would prefer to play man coverage with their corners but may not be able to do so as they try to scheme a way to slow down Falcons wide receiver Roddy White.
“We have to try to figure that out,” Harbaugh said. “Not too many people have figured that out so far, have they? That's the million dollar question right there. He's just been spectacular."
• Conversely, Atlanta will do everything in its power to stop Baltimore’s running game. This will put the game in quarterback Joe Flacco’s hands. He is playing as well as any signal-caller in the league. Against Tampa Bay, Atlanta stacked the box and gave a cushion to the wideouts, preventing the deep ball. If Flacco takes his time and works the ball underneath, he will give Atlanta fits all game.
Teams have been able to run on Baltimore in recent weeks, but this could potentially be a bad matchup for Atlanta. Falcons center Todd McClure isn’t 100 percent with a knee injury, and left tackle Sam Baker hasn’t lived up to his billing this season. There’s a good chance the Ravens could reverse the trend and keep running back Michael Turner from getting loose. If Atlanta’s running game is contained, Baltimore may win the time of possession battle and pull out a win on the road. Ravens 31-24.