As the Atlanta Falcons face an old heartbreak, the New England Patriots, they can relate to the Taylor Swift "Saturday Night Live" performance sweeping the country. This team knows all too well how the Patriots broke them into pieces almost four years ago, a 28-3 Super Bowl almost-triumph turned 34-28 devastating overtime loss from which they've never recovered.
The damage from the Patriots cuts deep, part of a 23-year losing streak that's an embodiment of a team that never quite gets over the hump. The Falcons remain in limbo, a 4-5 team saddled with inconsistency coming off a 43-3 blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Their scoring margin of minus-85 is second worst in the NFC, ahead of only the winless Detroit Lions, as they've beaten only one team with a winning record this season.
Not a good time, it seems, for the Patriots to come charging into town. After dismantling the Cleveland Browns 45-7, New England has won four straight games, the second-best active streak in the NFL behind Tennessee. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones is growing by leaps and bounds, a clear favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year and paired with a dynamic group of young players. Add in a defense adept at forcing turnovers and head coach Bill Belichick's team is molding itself into a dark horse Super Bowl contender.
Perhaps the best hope for the Falcons is that if we've learned anything about the NFL this season, good teams are afflicted with Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome. Those same Cowboys that whipped the Falcons last week were nearly shut out by the Denver Broncos the week before; the Pats have a loss to the 3-7 Miami Dolphins on their 2021 résumé. Anything can and will happen, especially during the three days of short rest surrounding "Thursday Night Football" that level the playing field.
Can the Patriots avoid the same lifeless performance that caused those Dolphins to upset the Baltimore Ravens last Thursday night? Or will the Falcons fall flat against a foe that always seems to run right through them? A win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Atlanta would be its first in seven games against New England dating back to November 1998.
Thursday Night Football: New England (6-4) at Atlanta (4-5)
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 18 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Patriots -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Mac Jones vs. Matt Ryan
These two quarterbacks enter this week headed in two very different directions. Jones just had the best game of his NFL career, going 19-for-23 with a career-high three touchdown passes as he fully dismantled the Browns defense from the start. Their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, singled out Jones in his post-race presser as the reason his team was beaten so badly.
On the flip side is Ryan, whose dreadful no touchdown, two-interception, 9-for-21 flop against the Cowboys produced a 21.4 passer rating. That's the lowest of his 14-year NFL career as a starter, ending the game on the bench as backup Josh Rosen finished it out with the Falcons down by 40.
The 36-year-old veteran is trying hard to put that performance in the rear-view mirror.
"It got ugly quick," Ryan said after Sunday's game. "Days like today happen. … That's part of being mentally tough is you know when you get knocked down, you've got to get back up quick."
The Falcons are at a pivotal moment with their franchise quarterback; another late-season losing streak gives them a top-10 draft pick and an opportunity to move on in 2022. To be fair, Ryan has suffered through a lack of supporting cast on offense. Top wide receiver Calvin Ridley is on injured reserve battling mental health concerns. No one else at that position has more than 194 yards total through nine games. While rookie tight end Kyle Pitts has been sensational, piling up 40 catches and 606 yards, he can't do it alone.
Compare that to Jones, whose supporting cast has slowly developed around him in unexpected places. It's not veteran free agent signing Nelson Agholor leading the offense but 26-year-old Kendrick Bourne, a wide receiver who piled up a season-high 98 yards and a touchdown against the Browns. Young Jakobi Meyers got into the end zone after setting the NFL record for most career receiving yards (around 1,522) without a touchdown. Then there's tight end Hunter Henry, adding two TDs of his own for his first multi-score game since signing with New England this offseason.
You get the picture. For Atlanta to compete, their young offensive core needs to step up in much the same way, players like Olamide Zaccheaus removing their cloak of invisibility and providing options for Ryan downfield.
2. Which run game gets going?
One of the best Falcons offensive options, for weeks, has been running back Cordarrelle Patterson. But in yet another case of bad timing, Patterson could be out a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle, leaving him questionable for Thursday night's contest.
Patterson's 776 yards of total offense was a bright spot, especially facing a Patriots defense weaker against the rush (14th) than the pass (eighth). Potential replacement Mike Davis is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry; Wayne Gallman was ineffective in garbage time against the Cowboys. It'll be a challenge to run the ball without Patterson on the field.
Compare that to Rhamondre Stevenson, the rookie running back exploding onto the scene for the Patriots this month. The fourth-round NFL draft pick has settled into the offense (sensing a theme here?), peaking with his first 100-yard rushing game against the Browns last week. Brandon Bolden is playing the old Kevin Faulk role well for the Patriots, complementing the attack with a 5.6-yards-per-carry average on just 25 rushes.
The Falcons defense is weak up the middle, ranking just 21st against the run and allowing an average of 139.5 yards in their last four games. Expect Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to use a lot of Stevenson early, opening it up for Jones in the same way the Cowboys put the ball on the ground 37 times, scoring three rushing touchdowns last Sunday.
3. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
The Patriots' defense has been surging up the charts in recent weeks, producing 17 turnovers to rank tied for fourth in the NFL. They're especially dangerous in pass defense, where their 14 turnovers are second only to the Bills. The Falcons defense has just eight in nine games, an anemic performance in which they've also produced an NFL-worst 11 sacks.
The Pats, meanwhile, have turned up the wick, scoring two defensive touchdowns and holding opponents to just 12.5 points per game during their four-game win streak. A switch to zone coverage has been instrumental in reducing big plays allowed in the secondary while linebacker Matthew Judon is terrorizing opposing quarterbacks (three sacks during this stretch).
The Falcons and Ryan need to flip their -5 turnover margin this season in order to have a chance. That seems unlikely with a starting quarterback who's thrown five of his eight interceptions this season in just the last four games.
Belichick is a mastermind when it comes to keeping his team focused. The Pats are the lone undefeated road team in the AFC (4-0) and understand the potential for Thursday night to be a trap game with Tennessee looming large next Sunday.
They'll show up ready to play against a wounded Falcons team that just got punched in the mouth. It won't be pretty. Expect Jones to keep developing and Falcons fans to keep devolving to the point they might be calling for Rosen by the fourth quarter, an almost-unthinkable prospect considering how Ryan has been the face of their franchise for over a decade.
It's not Ryan's fault, honestly. But he'll take the fall for a Falcons team teetering on falling apart, a feeling their fans know a little all too well.
Prediction: Patriots 38, Falcons 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.