The New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons kickstart the NFL's International Series this Sunday in England after a one-year break due to COVID-19 restrictions. They'll play at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in what's supposed to be a beautiful weekend by London standards: partly cloudy skies with a high temperature of 65 degrees on game day.
What might not be so pretty is the level of play for British fans anxious to see American football's return to Europe. These teams have a combined 2-6 record, stumbling out of the gates to make Sunday feel more like a playoff elimination game than a Super Bowl preview. The loser will fall to 1-4 entering their bye week and have an almost impossible task to climb back into postseason contention.
The neutral-site game is welcome news for the Jets, winners of just six of their last 34 road games dating back to 2017. How big would a victory be for them in London? It would be the first time the Jets have won back-to-back games in the first half of the regular season since 2018.
The Falcons, meanwhile, look to keep pace in an NFC South division that's rapidly slipping away from them. Two games behind the Carolina Panthers and defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Matt Ryan needs to drag the offense across the finish line this week without his top wide receivers. Can this team, marked by inconsistency, keep their offense scoring points while forcing takeaways against a Jets team whose minus-six turnover margin ranks 31st in the NFL?
NFL International Series: New York (1-3) vs. Atlanta (1-3)
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 10 at 9:30 a.m. ET
Where: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (London, England)
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Falcons -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Zach Wilson build on his first career NFL win?
After an embarrassing three-game start to his NFL career (two touchdowns, seven interceptions), Wilson was electric when it mattered against the Titans. A 297-yard performance included two completions of 50-plus yards, just the fifth rookie to accomplish the feat since 2015. It put him in pretty good company, too: Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Justin Herbert, and current betting favorite for NFL MVP Kyler Murray are the other four.
But perhaps the most important pass for Wilson came in overtime, a 29-yard strike to Keelan Cole Sr. on third-and-2 which set up their winning field goal. It's the type of play Wilson wasn't making in the first three weeks of the year, rookie mistakes leading to a grand total of 20 points scored against the Panthers, Patriots, and Broncos.
"He was aggressive when he needed to be," said Jets head coach Robert Saleh, "And he was boring when he needed to be, believe it or not."
Now, Wilson gets a bit of a reprieve with a Falcons defense ranked just 27th in the NFL. The team is last in opponents' passer rating and is tied for last with 11 touchdown passes allowed, including three to another inexperienced quarterback, Taylor Heinicke, in a 34-30 loss to Washington last week.
Wilson has the talent to put together back-to-back quality performances. The key will be whether his top receivers, Corey Davis and Jamison Crowder, can break away in the Falcons' patchwork secondary, reeling after cornerback Isaiah Oliver was lost to a season-ending knee injury. Starting safety Erik Harris' availability for the game is also in doubt.
Can the Jets' wideouts take advantage? While Davis is the deep threat, Crowder's return to the field last week was just as impactful, catching a team-high seven balls for 61 yards and a touchdown in helping the offense spread the field.
2. Who will be the Falcons' go-to target without Calvin Ridley?
The Falcons' offense appeared to hit high gear in that four-point loss against Washington last week. Ryan threw for a season-high four touchdowns while Ridley, his top target, pulled down a team-high seven catches for 80 yards.
But Ridley also had multiple drops, unusual for the 2018 NFL first-round pick whose stature was elevated with Julio Jones' departure. Now, perhaps we know why things were ever-so-slightly off: Ridley won't make the trip to London to deal with "a personal matter."
Surely, more information will come soon from a Falcons organization that's currently tight-lipped. The more immediate problem is who's going to step up on a team that doesn't have another wide receiver totaling more than 70 yards on the season. Making matters worse, No. 2 wideout Russell Gage, who's already missed two games this season, is also out with an ankle injury.
The answer may come from two very different sources. Running back Cordarrelle Patterson has overachieved in the passing game, piling up three touchdowns last weekend on five catches while adding 34 yards on the ground. The change-of-pace back is perhaps their best backfield weapon, the lone highlight of an anemic run game that ranks 25th in the NFL.
Meanwhile, one of the more disappointing rookies thus far, Kyle Pitts, has an opportunity to step into a starring role. Drafted fourth overall, that's the highest selection for any tight end in the modern era but Pitts has fallen a bit behind those lofty expectations. He's caught just 15 balls thus far for 189 yards and no touchdowns, production that's a fraction of Pro Bowlers like Kansas City's Travis Kelce (24 rec., 312 yds., 3 TDs).
Pitts will surely be a focal point of the offense as Ryan has a chance to get aggressive against this Jets defense. They're ranked 12th in the NFL against the pass but have yet to snag an interception through four games.
3. Which team can better manage the trip overseas?
The time difference combined with the distractions of flying to a different country can pose a challenge for rebuilding franchises like the Jets and Falcons. They're also planning to tackle the resulting five-hour time change differently than many others before them.
Saleh, part of three trips to London while an assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars, feels he's figured out the perfect timeline for his Jets to excel on this trip. The team is flying late Thursday night, not all that dissimilar to their schedule when they went out west two weeks ago to face the Denver Broncos.
"Keep it as normal as possible for our guys," Saleh said of the decision to land Friday morning. "Just a matter of getting in there, getting acclimated to the time change and playing on Sunday."
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith feels the exact same way, declining a type of "bowl-week" approach where his team would spend the entire week overseas.
"At the end of the day, both teams are handed the same circumstances," Smith said, calling the strategy to travel Thursday some "pretty good science."
"We've got to adapt."
You'd have to give the edge to Saleh here based on his previous experience being part of games in London. At the same time … his team got housed by the Broncos on the road just two weeks earlier, 26-0. So it's a shaky vote of confidence.
At the end of the day, the pressure falls on Wilson's shoulders to step up and perform, despite the many distractions ensnarled in a trip overseas. Last week, the overtime win for him was a milestone in a young career filled with potential. Beating a veteran like Ryan in this type of environment is another big step.
A weak Falcons defense should allow Wilson to seal the deal, giving the Jets as many wins in their first five games as they had throughout all of 2020.
Prediction: Jets 24, Falcons 21
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.