The Patriots travel down to Atlanta to play the Falcons this Sunday in what is yet another tough game placed at the front end of the Patriots schedule. This game should prove another test to the banged up Patriots and challenge their ability to overcome the myriad of injuries they have.

Of course any discussion of the Falcons offense begins with Michael Vick at quarterback. As every follower of the NFL knows, Vick is a tremendously talented athlete who is capable of breathtaking feats from the quarterback position. He can do it all, throw, run and make plays. He possesses one of the strongest arms in the NFL and on occasion can throw some of the most impressive balls you’ll ever see. Running the ball, he is about as big a weapon as there is in the NFL in open space and really challenges any defense to contain him. He is, alas, inconsistent however. He has bouts of inaccuracy, suffers occasional poor decision making and can be turnover prone. The key to defensing him for the Patriots is to keep him in the pocket, do not allow him to step up and run in space up the middle and force him to be a pocket QB. That is, ultimately, much easier said than done.

In 2001 when the Patriots played the Falcons, Vick came in for an injured Chris Chandler and faced a merciless blitzing defense that sacked him repeatedly. Of course, Vick is better and improved since then. He will be a challenge to stop. Vick comes in with an injured knee that shouldn’t keep him out. If it does, however, Atlanta has a capable backup in Matt Schaub. Schaub is a tall, strong-armed kid who can move around also and ran Atlanta’s offensive system in college at Virginia. Atlanta is certainly capable of being competitive on offense with Schaub at the helm and the Patriots will need to avoid letting up if he comes in.

Atlanta is first and foremost a running team. The Patriots will absolutely have to do a much better job this week than last week or they will be run over by Falcon running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. I believe the Patriots will go all out to stop the run by plugging the gaps that were open last week, avoiding overpursuit and tackling better this week. If Atlanta becomes one dimensional, they’ll be in trouble offensively. Monty Beisel and Chad Brown in particular will need to play a lot better filling the middle than they did last week. Also, any overpursuit on Dunn and he has the speed and moves to take it a long way in a hurry. This also is easier said than done, however. As they were last year, Atlanta is number one in the NFL in rushing. They have averaged over 200 yards per game rushing so far this year. Given their struggles last week, that is a pretty scary number for the Patriots.

The best receiver on the Falcons, like the Chargers last week, is their tight end. In this case, its Alge Crumpler. Patriots safeties Eugene Wilson and Guss Scott will again be challenged trying to hold off Crumpler. The return of rookie safety James Sanders from injury for the Patriots should help. He is more similar to Rodney Harrison than Guss Scott and could help in defensing the running game. One can not expect too much, however, as it will be Sanders’ first regular season NFL game. At corner, the Patriots should have a bit of an easier time with the Falcons wide receiver crew than they had last week as this group isn’t quite as talented. Michael Jenkins is probably Atlanta’s most dangerous weapon as he has speed to get downfield. Brian Finneran is a tall receiver the Falcons like on third down. The Patriots need to keep their eye on him as a first option in those situations. The Falcons line is capable, but not outstanding. The Patriots could have a matchup advantage if their defensive line can play to their ability this week and if most show up rather than being out with injuries.

This will be a challenge for the Patriots as well. With two rookies on the left side of the Patriots offensive line, Falcon lineman Patrick Kerney could prove especially dangerous. He is an excellent pass rusher and a master of the blindside strip sack. Fortunately, no other Falcon lineman is a huge pass rushing threat, so the Patriots may be able to afford to double up on Kerney.

The Falcons linebacker crew is a talented bunch. Keith Brooking is a very good, tackling machine and playmaker for the Falcons. He is their leader. New signee Edgerton Hartwell cost the Falcons a bundle in the offseason, but so far has looked out of position and been disappointing for them. The third linebacker, Demorrio Williams is the type of speed, undersized lineman the physical Patriots’ offensive linemen may be able to overpower. Atlanta also has a tendancy to overpursue in their attacking style defense. A reverse or two to Deion Branch or Tim Dwight might work this week for the Patriots. The Patriots need to establish the running game this week and be more committed to it as well. The Falcons give up 4.5 yards per rush, this may be the perfect week for it.

The Falcons defensive backfield features an outstanding player in DeAngelo Hall. In his second year, he is on his way to being one of the top corners in the NFL. He is still subject to occasional mental mistakes that get him beat deep and its possible we’ll see one Sunday. The other corner Jason Webster can be beat as can the nickle backs, including former Patriots cast-off Christian Morton. The safeties are average, though Bryan Scott has good skills and holds it all together back there. The Patriots should be able to throw the ball very effectively against the Falcons in the perfect conditions of the dome.

The Falcons feature average special teams. Decent kickers in Todd Peterson and Toby Gowin. DeAngelo Hall is dangerous in the return game. The Falcons also do a nice job covering kicks only giving up 20.2 yards on kickoffs and 7.1 on punts.

This is a game which certainly lends itself to waffling on predicting a result. On the one hand, the Patriots are very banged up, seemed to be somewhat exposed last week and are facing a very good team on the road. On the other hand, they are the Patriots and if any team deserves the benefit of the doubt they can rebound, play tough on the road and pull out a hard victory when everyone is doubting them, it is them. But this week, they seem to have just too many injuries to do it. Too much is going against them at the moment. They will rebound and prove themselves the high character, tough, resilliant team they are at some point this year. It just won’t be this week. Falcons win 27-23.