Atlanta Falcons (6-0) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-3)
1. There's a new deputy of defense
On the first day of the Eagles' bye week, coach Andy Reid told reporters he was in the midst of making a change. On the second day, he announced the firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, who was replaced by former secondary coach Todd Bowles.
Many observers, including Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, were dubious when Reid moved Castillo, the team's longtime offensive line coach, to defense in Feb. 2011. Turns out the suspicions were correct. Castillo's Waterloo came at home in the fourth quarter of a Week 6 game against Detroit, when the Eagles squandered a 10-point lead, losing, 26-23, in overtime. It marked the seventh time Philly had blown a fourth-quarter advantage since 2011.
Now comes Bowles, 48, who some NFL experts feel is a head coach in waiting. This is the second year in a row Bowles has been promoted from within his team. Last year, he replaced Tony Sparano as Miami's interim head coach for the final three games. The Dolphins went 2-1.
A former defensive back who played eight seasons in the league for the Redskins and 49ers, Bowles is considered to have a more laid-back personality than the sometimes fiery Castillo. Whether that has any impact on the defense's success is still to be determined.
Bowles said he doesn't plan to make any changes in personnel or scheme -- the Eagles will still run their Wide-9 alignment, where the ends line up on the outside shoulders of the tight end or offensive tackle -- but in his first meeting with the players he said the defense would not be predictable. Under Bowles, the focus will be on playing a faster, disciplined and more opportunistic defense.
"We have to finish the end of games," Bowles told reporters when asked where the defense needs to improve most. "The bottom line is when you're out there on defense, it doesn't matter what happens. When you're out there at the end of the game, you've got to finish."
2. "Matty Ice" is on fire
Maybe it's time to work Matt Ryan's name into the conversation about elite quarterbacks in the NFL. Any examination of why the Falcons are the league's lone unbeaten team has to start with the fifth-year signal caller.
The NFC's offensive player of the month in September, Ryan is looking like a bona fide candidate for league MVP. In each of the Falcons' first three games this season, he directed the offense to touchdowns on its first possession. In each of the last three games, he has engineered a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. For those keeping score at home, that makes 19 game-winning drives in the final 15 minutes or overtime for Ryan since he came into the league as a first-round pick out of Boston College in 2008.
Through six games, Ryan has completed 160 of 236 passes (68 percent) for 1,756 yards and 14 touchdowns, with only six interceptions. He is on a pace for 37 scoring passes, which would be a career high, and his 98.8 passer rating ranks fourth in the league behind Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Denver's Peyton Manning and Washington rookie Robert Griffin III.
"The one thing that I'm noticing is that he has a lot of leeway to make audibles at the line of scrimmage," Eagles safety Kurt Coleman told Philadelphia reporters. "He is almost coming into his own of a Peyton (Manning) or Tom (Brady); he's hit that type of benchmark."
Ryan keeps his receivers happy by distributing the ball impartially. If you're open, he's going to find you. Tight end Tony Gonzalez (43), wide receivers Roddy White (37), Julio Jones (30) and Harry Douglas (16) and running back Jacquizz Rodgers (15) each has double-digit receptions, and everyone but Douglas has scored a touchdown.
3. Refreshed equals success
From the department of obscure but telling statistics comes this eye-opening nugget: During the Andy Reid era, the Eagles are 13-0 in games coming off of a bye week. That may not be relevant to the Falcons, who also are coming off a bye, but it certainly has to make the Eagles feel confident going into Sunday's game at Lincoln Financial Field.
It hasn't mattered when the Eagles have been off -- early in the season, in the middle of it, or late -- they've always come back triumphant in the next game. Here's another significant note: Philadelphia has registered a post-bye winning record in all but one of Reid's 13 seasons.
Over the years, the Eagles have utilized the bye week as a springboard to a run of success. In 2001, they were 2-2 before the bye and 9-3 after it. In 2003, they started 0-2, then went 12-2 after their week off. The 2009 Eagles started 2-1, then finished 9-4. Overall, the Eagles are 84-39-1 after the bye week under Reid.
Obviously, the man with the walrus mustache has this bye week concept figured out.
He's 36 and playing his 16th season in the league, but the Falcons tight end still is performing at an elite level. He leads all tight ends in receptions and ranks sixth in the NFL overall with 43 catches, for 430 yards and four touchdowns. Here are excerpts of his chat with SI.com.
Is getting to a Super Bowl the one thing left on your NFL bucket list?
Ummm ... yep. Easy answer, huh? It's one of the reasons I keep wanting to come back. Don't get me wrong; if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to let it eat me up. I've loved my experience in the NFL, and I wouldn't exchange it for anything. Hopefully we can get that done this year, and I can ride off and finally retire.
It's looking like you'll have a good chance this season. What makes this team so successful?
We're a better football team than we ever have been, no doubt about it, just from a talent standpoint. And a lot of it is the same talent we had last year. It's the guys maturing in the locker room, the young guys on defense, guys like Thomas DeCoud, William Moore, the D-linemen. They're hitting their strides. That's when you should come around as a player, usually in years three, four and five. Especially with quarterbacks. Matt (Ryan) has always been great, but he's playing out of his mind. I think he's maturing, just starting to figure out how this game really works and he's really, really comfortable in this offense.
As you know, the Eagles changed defensive coordinators last week. Do you expect them to do much differently under Todd Bowles than what they did under Juan Castillo?
I don't see how they could change too much, but at the same time one thing I've heard out of Philly is that they're going to be a little bit more unpredictable. We've seen their packages. They can't change that in (a few) days. That would be very tough. We just have to be prepared for their tendencies that we've studied on film. That's up to (offensive coordinator) Dirk (Koetter); he has to put us in the right positions. As a tight end, I've got to go out there and do what the play calls for, and we have to execute.
What's your secret for playing as long and successfully as you have?
(Laughs) That's a long answer as far as I'm concerned. It goes back to hard work; there's no substitution for it. I've been lucky, too -- there's no doubt about it -- to be able to avoid serious injuries. But I make it a point to do more than what's asked of me. I think that's what has helped me stick around [and play] at a high level. I go out before practice, make catches after practice. I'm in the weight room every day. We're only supposed to be in there twice a week, but I'll go in there five days a week. I do stretching, lifting, whatever I need to do to make sure that on Sunday I'm ready to play. Nutrition is a big part of it, too. It's a whole bunch of things. It's never just one secret bullet.
You said during training camp that you were 95 percent sure this would be your last season. Has that changed?
Not at all. It won't change until the end of the season, and then I'll evaluate it. But I don't anticipate it changing at all. It's now or never as far as I'm concerned, and enjoy the moment. I've loving it and having a great time doing it.
Above and beyond the records you have set, how do you think you changed the tight end position in the NFL?
When people saw me when I started doing my thing, creating matchups, players have done it before. I love old tight ends: John Mackey, Mike Ditka, Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow, Shannon Sharpe. I'm not the first one to show that there are matchups out there, but I guess maybe with my basketball background, because I played basketball in college, people get a kick out of that and think it had a lot to do with my success. But I think you saw where you could line them up not only at the tight end position, but (also) at the "X," the "Z" and put them all over the field and create those matchups. It's become somewhat of a glamour position now. It's a fun position to play, and you can get the ball a lot.
Among the young tight ends in the game today, who do you admire most?
I like 'em all -- and I steal from them all. Whatever they do, I'm trying to take some of it and make it even better. The guy I really like, who has my body type and background, is Jimmy Graham (of the Saints). I love what he's done.
What advice would you give to young players about how to have a long and successful career in the NFL?
Never be content. Always keep evolving your workouts. Build up a routine and stick to it every single day. I have a routine where I catch at least a hundred balls a day, sometimes 150 or 200, and I do that every day without fail. Develop a routine that is going to make you successful. You can't do only what's expected of you and think you're going to be better than somebody else. You have to go above and beyond. You should never get bored. You should keep tweaking it and trying to evolve and be the best player you can be. I don't care how many catches you have or how many touchdowns you have in one season. If you get content, that's where you start to slow down and fall back. That's been my motto ever since I've been in the league.
When it comes to dynamic duos in the passing game, the Falcons feature a good one in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Since the start of the 2011 season, those two receivers have combined for 24 touchdown receptions. Here's how they stack up against other pass-catching pairs over the last two seasons.
Like most NFL games, this one should hinge on the performance of the quarterbacks. Although Ryan has been outstanding this season, his career record against Philadelphia is 1-3, including two losses at Lincoln Financial Field. It will be interesting to see what Bowles has cooked up for Ryan in his first game as the Eagles defensive coordinator.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, the guy Ryan replaced in Atlanta, has struggled all season with ball security. He has thrown eight interceptions and fumbled five times, leaving many fans wondering how long Reid will wait before he pulls Vick and turns to rookie Nick Foles.
Although Reid's M.O. is a heavy dose of passing, he might be wise to have Vick hand the ball off to LeSean McCoy often on Sunday. The Falcons are allowing 143.8 rushing yards per game (28th in the league).
"We have to make sure we get him going. He's a big part of our offense," Vick told Atlanta reporters in a conference call. "I think we're going to have to run the football and be able to create different looks from the defense."
Given my dismal performance in recent weeks, I've got nothing to lose by playing a hunch. So I'm predicting that Atlanta's perfect season ends Sunday afternoon.
Eagles 23, Falcons 20Last week: Patriots 34, Jets 20Season record: 4-3