After big win over Denver, Falcons face next test in Seattle
Following the most impressive win of the early NFL season, the Atlanta Falcons aren't exactly being rewarded.
One week after going into Denver and handling the defending league champion Broncos 23-16, the Falcons stayed out west and headed to Seattle. Coming back with a road victory over the Seahawks (3-1 and coming off a bye) would stamp Atlanta (4-1) as a Super Bowl favorite.
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!
Atlanta started 6-1 last season and finished 8-8. While this team looks more balanced, more polished and more dangerous than the 2015 version, it still has plenty to prove. On the scoreboard, and in the standings.
''I think that we are mentally tougher, a more resilient group for sure,'' Matt Ryan says.
''You learn from that. Obviously, we started fast last year and things didn't go our way in the second half of the season. I think what you learn is that the difference between wins and losses is a handful of plays and you've got to be on the right end of them. We've done a really good job of being opportunistic early in the season.''
No kidding. Ryan leads the NFL with a 121.6 passer rating, and Julio Jones has averaged a phenomenal 21.5 yards a catch. This is a matchup of the Falcons' No. 1-ranked offense against the Seahawks' top-ranked defense. Very juicy indeed.
''You get caught up in the peaks and the valleys just like Pete (Carroll) always says,'' star cornerback Richard Sherman notes, ''treat everything like a championship opportunity. You always treat it like you're playing the No. 1 offense. You start treating it like the No. 32 offense, and if the No. 32 offense, they (might) go put up 500 yards on you because they're still pros, they're still getting paid to do this. So we don't get caught up in any of that.''
But Sherman did acknowledge that facing Jones and Ryan would be ''fun.''
The action began Thursday night with San Diego's 21-13 home victory over Denver.
Philip Rivers threw for 178 yards and a touchdown, passing Hall of Famer Dan Fouts to become San Diego's career passing leader.
The victory may have saved embattled coach Mike McCoy's job. The Chargers (2-4) were coming off a mistake-filled loss at Oakland.
The Super Bowl champion Broncos (4-2) were coached by special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis after Gary Kubiak was ordered by doctors to sit out because of a migraine condition that mimics strokes.
Off this week are Minnesota, at 5-0 the NFL's only unbeaten team, and Tampa Bay (2-3).
Dallas (4-1) at Green Bay (3-2)
There remain enough doubters about the Cowboys that this is another prove-it game. The way Dak Prescott is throwing it (155 passes without a pick) and Ezekiel Elliott is running it (league-high 546 yards), Dallas is proving you can win behind rookies .
''There are certainly a lot of areas where we have to get better,'' coach Jason Garrett says, ''but we're doing a good job coming off the ball, getting into blocks and finding places for runners to run. The runners are running well.''
Still, the Packers hold opponents to 42.8 yards rushing per game. If the Cowboys, 4-11 at the Packers, come close to their 155.2 yards per game on the ground, it will be impressive. And possibly decisive.
San Francisco (1-4) at Buffalo (3-2)
With Colin Kaepernick now the starter, he's going to attract attention for more than his refusal to stand during the national anthem. It took a four-game slide with Blaine Gabbert showing little at quarterback for coach Chip Kelly to make the change.
''We need to move the football offensively and that's why we made the decision to do what we were doing,'' Kelly says. ''So, hopefully we can get a little more consistency on the offensive side of the ball and that's what I think we need.
''Critical things in third down I think have been the things that we've really tried to emphasize and work on as we get moving forward here. That's what we're hoping for and that's why we made the move.''
Buffalo is hoping to keep streaking after going 3-0 since elevating Anthony Lynn to offensive coordinator and firing Greg Roman.
Cincinnati 2-3) at New England (4-1)
Tom Brady's first regular-season game in Foxborough after serving his four-game ''Deflategate'' suspension. Listen for wild cheers of support - and some nasty chants about Roger Goodell - and look for Brady to fill the air with regulation footballs. Many of those are likely to land in the hands of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and a new favorite, TE Martellus Bennett, who had three TD catches last week.
The Bengals were humiliated in Dallas, and they haven't won in New England in 30 years. Brady is 5-1 against them with 12 TDs and a 101.2 passer rating.
Kansas City (2-2) at Oakland (4-1)
One of the NFL's great rivalries resumes - this is game 115, KC leads 60-52-2 - with the Chiefs needing to maintain their dominance in the AFC West. They've won three straight vs. Oakland and six straight within the division. Alex Smith loves seeing the Raiders on the other side of the line of scrimmage: He's 7-1 with 18 TDs, three interceptions and a 106.1 passer rating in this matchup.
These are the new Raiders, though, formidable and, at last, a threat to make the playoffs, a place they last visited 14 years ago. They rank fourth in total offense, a necessity considering they are last in defense.
Philadelphia (3-1) at Washington (3-2)
Another long-term rivalry (Washington leads 84-73-5), and this one should say a lot about the NFC East race.
Philly stumbled at Detroit after losing its momentum from a 3-0 start by having an early bye. Rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has been terrific, but it's the Eagles' defensive performance that has been just as crucial. They haven't allowed a touchdown in the second half and just six points overall.
Washington dropped its first two games, but Kirk Cousins throwing to DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed has sparked the attack.
Pittsburgh (4-1) at Miami (1-4)
For the first time, twins Maurkice (Steelers) and Mike Pouncey (Dolphins) are opponents. Their showings on the offensive line will be critical, especially for Miami, which has been awful with the ball, struggles to protect Ryan Tannehill, and is a minus-7 in turnover margin; only the Jets are worse.
Just what Ben Roethlisberger needs is another dangerous receiver.
Well, he's got one: Sammie Coates is averaging an NFL-best 22.1 yards per catch, with at least one reception of 40 yards or more in each game. Big Ben leads the league with 15 touchdown passes, the most through five games in Steelers history, and WR Antonio Brown is tops with 37 catches.
Baltimore (3-2) at New York Giants (2-3)
Unlike their AFC North brethren, the Ravens have stalled on offense, leading to the firing this week of coordinator Marc Trestman.
Barring falling into an early hole, look for plenty of balance with the ball from Baltimore, with Terrance West toting the ball.
Odell Beckham Jr. finally got into the end zone last week at Green Bay, but that didn't do much for New York, which has dropped three in a row.
Even more worrisome: New York is minus-7 in turnover differential, with only three takeaways. All that money spent on the defense has yielded minimal returns thus far.
Los Angeles (3-2) at Detroit (2-3)
The Lions might have benefited from a missed call by officials in their comeback win against the Eagles. They expect DE Ezekiel Ansah (ankle) back after missing three-plus games, and cornerback Darius Slay comes off a strong performance in which he had a clinching interception.
To get to .500, Detroit will need to figure out Todd Gurley. The 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year went for 140 yards on 16 carries and had two TDs in last year's win over the Lions in St. Louis. Gurley has yet to break out this season, though, with only a 2.7-yard average. But he has rushed for three scores.
Indianapolis (2-3) at Houston (3-2)
Given the other matchups this Sunday, it's a shame the flex schedule hasn't begun yet.
Still, this is for first place in a division, albeit the mediocre AFC South.
The Colts are 23-5 against Houston, and Andrew Luck has won 14 of his past 15 starts within the division. He might need a big game because Indy is not likely to shut down receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Jaelen Strong and rookie Will Fuller.
New York Jets (1-4) at Arizona (2-3), Monday night
The Jets' crucible of five 2015 playoff teams in six weeks ends here. It hasn't been pretty, and with Carson Palmer expected back from his concussion, the Cardinals will be a difficult opponent.
But Arizona also has lost both starting guards, Mike Iupati and Evan Mathis, and New York has a good defensive line.
Jets coach Todd Bowles is close with Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, having played for Arians at Temple (1982-85) and serving as his defensive coordinator with Arizona in 2013-14.
Jacksonville (1-3) at Chicago (1-4)
Back from London after their first win and then a bye, the Jaguars believe they could make some inroads in the AFC South. Getting by Chicago is a must.
But they are 4-21 on the road in coach Gus Bradley's four seasons, including 0-6 against NFC teams.
The Bears have gotten good enough play from backup QB Brian Hoyer - three straight 300-yard games, six TDs, no picks - that Jay Cutler might not get back his job once fully healthy. Helping Hoyer has been RB Jordan Howard, who's second among NFL rookies with 296 yards rushing.
Carolina (1-4) at New Orleans (1-3)
How the mighty have fallen. Carolina's chances of winning a fourth consecutive NFC South are fading after losing their first two division matchups. A third one could be devastating, and they go against the prolific Drew Brees with an underachieving secondary and defense on the whole.
But at least they will have 2015 league MVP Cam Newton back at quarterback after he missed the loss to Tampa Bay with a concussion.
As always, New Orleans' chances ride on Brees' arm. He seems more comfortable every week with his current group of targets: Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, Coby Fleener and rookie Michael Thomas.
Cleveland (0-5) at Tennessee (2-3)
Down Nashville way, they're singing optimistic songs about the Titans in the AFC South. Don't laugh too hard: a win and a Colts victory creates a three-way tie at the top.
The Titans can run the ball, with DeMarco Murray second in the NFL with 461 yards rushing and 633 yards from scrimmage. Murray leads everyone with 33 first downs.
Cleveland is gutsy, but so banged-up. The Browns believe this is a good opportunity to get off the schneid, but they'll need to figure out how to close out a victory if they get in position.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL