A refreshed Atlanta Falcons (7-4) team returned to winning form last week with a decisive 38-19 victory over Arizona. The win helped Atlanta maintain a narrow one-game lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for first place in the NFC South. The Falcons will now be charged with an even bigger test in their bid to maintain control of the division, playing host to a very dangerous Kansas City Chiefs team on Sunday afternoon. A Falcons’ victory would go a long way in helping them fend off the surging Buccaneers and bring them one step closer to their first division title since 2012.
The Chiefs (8-3) made a big move up the standings in the hotly-contested AFC West by knocking off the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos on the road in dramatic fashion this past Sunday night. Kansas City trails Oakland by just one game for first place in the division and is currently holding on to the first wild card spot. Up next is a second straight road test, this one coming in the Georgia Dome against Atlanta. Even with a huge Thursday night showdown at home against the Raiders looming next week, the Chiefs can ill afford to overlook the Falcons, especially on their own turf.
Kansas City at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 4 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Atlanta -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Julio Jones: Playmaker or Decoy?
Atlanta is 3-4 in games when Jones has 50 or more receiving yards. The Falcons are a perfect 4-0 when he has finished with fewer than 50. He attracts so much attention from opposing defenses, it often benefits Matt Ryan more to look for other options in one-on-one coverage. Whether it’s a planned strategy or not, the numbers suggest that it works. The “decoy” strategy also has led to a “share the wealth” mentality that has brought about the emergence of Taylor Gabriel as another big-play option in recent weeks.
So will Jones be more of playmaker or decoy this week? That will likely depend on how Kansas City opts to defend the All-Pro wideout. Shutdown cornerback Marcus Peters will be tasked with covering Jones more often than not, and he is quite capable of providing a challenge. However, Peters almost never shadows the opposing team’s top receiver for the entirety of a game. That should leave Jones with plenty of tasty matchups against a more beatable Phillip Gaines, as well as nickel back Steven Nelson.
Regardless of Jones’ performance against the Chiefs on Sunday, his presence on the field alone will be enough to help the Falcons’ passing game succeed. The ironic part is that Kansas City might actually stand a better chance if Jones does have a big game.
2. A Triple-Threat for the Chiefs
Tyreek Hill has earned the distinction of becoming the Chiefs’ most feared playmaker on offense and special teams, surpassing the likes of Travis Kelce and Jeremy Maclin. The speedy rookie earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his Sunday night performance against the Broncos in which he scored three different ways – via a rush, a catch and a kickoff return. It marked the first time a player has scored a touchdown in three different ways in an NFL game since Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers did it twice in his rookie season for the Chicago Bears in 1965.
While the Chiefs’ fifth-round pick is unlikely to duplicate last week’s three-touchdown performance, Sunday’s matchup against a very generous Falcons defense lines up quite favorably. Hill projects to do most of his damage in this game as a receiver against a pass defense that ranks dead last in the NFL (282 ypg). Atlanta’s chances for limiting Hill in that regard are further diminished by the recent loss of top cornerback Desmond Trufant (pectoral surgery). The do-it-all rookie also will provide the Chiefs with a playmaking threat in the run game as well as on special teams
3. Uncharacteristic Turnovers
The Falcons have been one of the best teams in the NFL when it comes to limiting turnovers with just nine all season (three fumbles, six interceptions). That being said, they could be challenged in that department on Sunday by a very opportunistic Chiefs defense that has thrived on generating takeaways. Kansas City leads the league with 24 (13 interceptions, 11 fumbles) in 11 games. The Chiefs also boast the best turnover margin (+14) in the NFL. Peters, the ball-hawking cornerback, has played a large part in this success, as he’s second in the league in both interceptions (five) and fumble recoveries (three).
While this wouldn’t normally be a huge cause for concern for an Atlanta offense that takes very good care of the football, a boost to Kansas City’s pass rush this week could make it an issue. Linebacker Dee Ford, who is tied for second in the NFL with 10 sacks, is scheduled to return from a hamstring injury that held him out of action last week. The Falcons also may have to contend with pass-rush specialist Justin Houston. In just his second game back from knee surgery, Houston terrorized Broncos’ quarterback Trevor Siemian last week (three sacks, eight pressures and a forced fumble). He’s dealing with a shoulder injury, but if he’s able to play the combination of Houston, Ford, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson will test Atlanta’s offensive line and could force the Falcons’ offense into uncharacteristic mistakes.
Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce should help Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith exploit a bad Atlanta pass defense. An opportunistic Chiefs defense, that will feature pass rushers Dee Ford and Justin Houston on the field at the same time, holds promise as well. For those reasons, Kansas City has a puncher’s chance to come away with a second straight road upset.
However, the Chiefs have injury concerns along their defensive line, and that side of the ball still gave up far too many yards and big plays to a mediocre Denver offense last Sunday. While the Kansas City defense will likely have its moments on Sunday, there probably won’t be enough of them to derail a high-powered Atlanta offense that is far superior to the one the Chiefs faced in Denver last week. Even with the favorable aspects of this matchup, Kansas City will be hard-pressed to outscore the Falcons on their home turf.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Chiefs 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.