Thursday, October 22, 2009

NFL Preview - Atlanta (4-1) at Dallas (3-2)

By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons have so far been able to successfully navigate through a challenging stretch of games that followed a bye week. The Dallas Cowboys will be aiming for a similar outcome when the team comes out of its break to host the Falcons this Sunday in a key Week 7 clash between postseason hopefuls.

Atlanta is off to a splendid 4-1 start to this season, the franchise's best record after five games since an 11-5 campaign in 2004 that culminated with an appearance in the NFC Championship, and has posted a pair of notable victories out of a Week 4 hiatus. After throttling an upstart San Francisco team on the road by a 45-10 score in their first test after the bye, the Falcons outlasted the Chicago Bears in a hard-fought battle this past Sunday at the Georgia Dome to maintain their winning ways.

The Falcons sealed the 21-14 victory by preventing a potential game-tying touchdown after the Bears marched down to the opposing one-yard line in the closing seconds. Atlanta also forced two Chicago turnovers within the red zone earlier in the game to prevail despite being outgained by a 373-253 margin in total yards.

Dallas knows all about fantastic finishes, having been edged by the rival New York Giants on a last-second field goal back in Week 2 and coming up two yards short of a possible touchdown that would have forced overtime in a 17-10 setback at still-unbeaten Denver two weeks later. The Cowboys were engaged in another thriller two Sundays ago in Kansas City, but this time came out on the positive side of a 26-20 overtime decision to improve to 3-2 on the year.

The winning points came via a 60-yard connection from quarterback Tony Romo to seldom-used wide receiver Miles Austin, who broke out for a club-record 250 yards and two long touchdowns on 10 catches upon replacing the injured Roy Williams in the starting lineup.

Williams, who sat out the contest with bruised ribs incurred during the Denver game, will be one of a number of notable Dallas players ready to return for Sunday's tilt. Dynamic running back Felix Jones, out since spraining his left knee in the Cowboys' win over Carolina on September 28, and regular strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who didn't participate against the Chiefs due to a fractured thumb, are expected to suit up as well after getting some additional healing time with the week off.

Also set to go for Dallas will be linebacker Keith Brooking, who signed with the Cowboys in February after a decorated 11-year run with the Falcons. The Georgia native was a first-round selection by Atlanta in 1998 and made five Pro Bowls during his tenure there.

Dallas has won both of its games after a bye in the team's first two seasons under Wade Phillips, and the well-traveled head coach is 6-2 over the course of his career in such situations.


Dallas leads the all-time regular season series with Atlanta, 13-8, including a 38-28 road victory when the teams last met, in Week 15 of the 2006 season. The Falcons won the previous two head-to-head meetings, including a 27-13 triumph when it last visited Dallas in 2003. The Cowboys' most recent home win in the series came in 1999.

In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met twice in the postseason, with the Cowboys winning NFC Divisional Playoff matchups with the Falcons in 1978 and 1980.

Phillips, who served as interim head man of the Falcons for the final three games of the 2003 season, is 1-1 all-time against Atlanta, including 0-1 while interim head coach of the Saints (1985) and 1-0 while at the helm of the Broncos (1993-94). The Falcons' Mike Smith will be meeting both Phillips and the Cowboys for the first time as a head coach.


Atlanta's offense operates at its best when it can establish a physical downhill running game behind 255-pound bruiser Michael Turner (353 rushing yards, 6 TD, 3 receptions), but the team has surprisingly had trouble finding consistency in that area this season. Turner, who finished second in the NFL with a career-best 1,699 rushing yards in 2008, is averaging a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry with only one 100-yard effort to his credit this year, and he's had a fumble in each of the last four games. The Falcons have been able to survive that dip in production due to the heady play of sophomore quarterback Matt Ryan (1162 passing yards, 9 TD, 4 INT) and the work of a solid line that hasn't yielded a sack in four consecutive weeks. Ryan is completing nearly 65 percent of his throws, most of which have landed in the arms of game-breaking wide receiver Roddy White (27 receptions, 385 yards, 4 TD) and 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez (23 receptions, 3 TD). Turner managed just 30 yards on 13 attempts in last week's win over Chicago and clearly missed the lead-blocking skills of unheralded fullback Ovie Mughelli, who's dealing with a calf strain and is uncertain for Sunday's matchup.

Turner could find tough sledding once again when he takes on a Dallas defense that's surrendered an average of just 87 yards per game on the ground over its past three outings and limited the Chiefs' Larry Johnson to a paltry 37 yards on 21 totes two weeks back. Brooking (37 tackles, 1 sack, 3 PD) led the charge with 11 tackles and tops the team in stops from his inside linebacker spot, while nose tackle Jay Ratliff (11 tackles, 1 sack) earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last season for his ability to both shoot gaps and pressure the passer. The Cowboys added a season-best four sacks against Kansas City, with standout outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (22 tackles, 2 sacks) finally notching his first two of the year after leading the NFL in that category in 2008. Dallas ranks just 26th versus the pass (251.4 ypg) and has recorded just two interceptions through its first five games, and the secondary couldn't stop the Chiefs from marching downfield for a tying touchdown in the final stages of regulation back in Week 5.


A Dallas offense that has amassed the second-most yards in the league (420.4 ypg) will have its full arsenal of weapons on display come Sunday, with Jones (212 rushing yards, 1 TD) re-joining a stellar backfield that also contains the powerful Marion Barber (297 rushing yards, 3 TD, 4 receptions) and the often-overlooked Tashard Choice (225 rushing yards, 2 TD, 12 receptions), who helped spur the team's comeback win over Kansas City with a 36-yard touchdown burst in the third quarter. The talented trio, combined with a strong and oversized front line, has enabled the Cowboys to average a robust 161 rushing yards per game (3rd overall). Dallas can move the ball through the air as well, and Austin's (15 receptions, 331 yards, 3 TD) sudden emergence has made a quality receiving corps tougher to defend while earning the fourth-year pro a larger role at the expense of displaced starter Patrick Crayton (15 receptions, 1 TD). He should help take the pressure off of Williams (11 receptions, 1 TD), who's struggled to meet heightened expectations since arriving in a midseason trade with Detroit last year. Sure-handed tight end Jason Witten (28 receptions, 1 TD) still remains the preferred target for Romo (1341 passing yards, 6 TD, 4 INT), who came two yards shy of matching a career high with a 351-yard performance in the Kansas City game.

The Falcons have been the prototype bend-but-don't-break defense, ranking 24th overall in yards allowed (359.2 ypg) but having permitted just 15.4 points per game (4th overall) during their 4-1 start. That label was certainly applicable during last Sunday's win over Chicago, in which Atlanta kept the Bears from scoring three times within the red zone while also forcing three turnovers. Second-year free safety Thomas DeCoud (21 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PD) had two interceptions on the night to garner NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, while tackle Jonathan Babineaux (11 tackles, 0.5 sacks) forced Chicago back Matt Forte to fumble just short of the goal line to thwart another scoring opportunity. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton (57 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) came up with 10 tackles to spearhead a unit that held Forte to a mere 23 yards on 15 carries. The Falcons did lose one of their best cover men, veteran cornerback Brian Williams (18 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD), to a season-ending ACL tear in last weekend's victory, making it more imperative for ends John Abraham (14 tackles, 3 sacks) and Kroy Biermann (15 tackles, 3 sacks) to apply consistent pressure to Romo and help out the depleted secondary.


Austin probably became one of the most popular waiver-wire pickups following his prolific day against Kansas City, and he's worth a start in a matchup with an Atlanta secondary that's young and not very deep. Witten is a must-use every week at the tight end spot, but Williams' inconsistency makes the maligned wideout a riskier alternative. The Dallas backfield situation is confusing, with Choice seemingly the best bet for the most touches as the healthiest member of the three-man group and Barber the likeliest to get goal- line work. Both warrant consideration in fantasy lineups, but keep Jones on the bench another week until he shows he's fully over his health issues. With 23 touchdowns in 21 career games as a Falcon, Turner is always a good play at the running back position, while both White and Gonzalez could be set up for big afternoons against a Dallas defense that hasn't been airtight in containing the pass. That in turn further boosts Ryan's already high value as a No. 1 quarterback. Romo has averaged better than 280 passing yards over the Cowboys' last three games, but has thrown for just two touchdowns during that span.


This appears to be a game the Cowboys should win at first glance, having been freshened and at near full strength with the benefit of the bye week in addition to playing at home. There's just something about this Falcons team, however, that throws caution to that initial instinct. Dallas will be able to move the ball between the 20's on an Atlanta defense that gives up its share of yards, but the Falcons have excelled at minimizing the damage and forcing the opposition into costly mistakes. And if the offensive line can keep providing terrific protection for Ryan, there's also plenty of potential for big plays against a Dallas squad that has proven to be vulnerable in the defensive backfield. Look for the Cowboys to win a lot of the statistical battles, but ultimately come up short on the scoreboard.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Cowboys 13