NFL Preview - Dallas (3-4) at Atlanta (7-0)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - All Matt Ryan has to do is have a passer rating of 100 or better and the Atlanta Falcons have nothing to worry about.
It's really not that simple unless you gaze at the statistics.
Ryan and the undefeated Atlanta Falcons are set for a primetime showdown with the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night at the Georgia Dome. The lone unbeaten team in the NFL, Atlanta has breezed through its first seven games for the best start in team history and early MVP candidate Ryan deserves most of the credit.
The Falcons pushed their fantastic start to 7-0 with Sunday's 30-17 road win at Philadelphia in which Ryan completed 22-of-29 pass attempts for 262 yards and three touchdowns -- all on their first three drives. He had a season-high rating of 137.4 and did not turn the ball over. In fact, the Falcons, who scored on their first six possessions, are 28-0 when Ryan hits the century mark in quarterback rating.
Atlanta has scored an NFL-leading 27 points on its opening possessions and put Sunday's game away when Julio Jones hauled in a 63-yard touchdown pass, burning past Eagles veteran cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Jones made the route look so easy down the left sideline and kicker Matt Bryant added a field goal for a 24-7 halftime lead.
It was smooth sailing from there, as the Falcons made head coach Mike Smith the franchise's all-time leader in wins at 50-21. Smith surpassed Dan Reeves, who went 49-59-1 from 1997-03.
"I thought we started really fast in all three phases. It was nice to have a sixteen-play drive to start the game, and then defensively, to go out and have a three and out and have a very solid punt return where we flipped the field position and had the ball on the plus side of the 50 or thereabouts and go in and score again," Smith said. "And score on your six first possessions is the way you want to start the game."
The Falcons hope to have a similar start versus the Cowboys, and must get the run game off to a hot start in order to take pressure off of Ryan. Against the Eagles, Atlanta ran for 146 yards and kept the hosts guessing the entire afternoon. Philadelphia was showcasing a new defensive coordinator on Sunday, and it wouldn't have mattered if the system was in place for months. The Falcons are only 24th in rushing (95.0).
Dallas dropped a heartbreaking 29-24 home loss versus the New York Giants on Sunday in which it rallied to take the lead after a 23-0 deficit.
It appears the sky has fallen on the Cowboys, who have lost three of four games since a promising 2-1 start and committed six turnovers in the setback to the Giants (4 INT, 2 fumbles). Tony Romo leads the NFL with 13 interceptions this season and has been picked off 10 times in the last four games. The Cowboys have recorded a minus-11 turnover ratio over their last six games, with Romo throwing 12 interceptions against just six touchdown passes.
Romo, who passed for a career-high 437 yards on a club-record 62 pass attempts with 36 completions, almost became the hero when he threw was seemed to be a game-winning touchdown pass to Dez Bryant in the waning moments, but the receiver's hand touched the back of the end zone and was ruled out of bounds. The replays showed Bryant's right hand coming down in the white of the end zone, and the Cowboys couldn't punch it in after that.
"It's just tough when you think you've won the game, and it switches at that moment," Romo said. "You just put a lot into it obviously every week. It felt like a week's worth in that one game there. It's just hard to think about it right now."
What has to sting more is that the Giants are 4-0 in the Cowboys' new stadium and have made the venue MetLife Stadium south. Despite the loss, Dallas is tied with Philadelphia for second in the NFC East at 3-4 and has to be pleased with how the defense was able to adjust following a major hole. Eli Manning didn't have a touchdown pass and was intercepted once. DeMarcus Ware had the lone sack and overcame a leg injury during the game. Ware should be ready to go Sunday night because the Cowboys will need him.
Middle linebacker Dan Connor, who replaced starter Sean Lee in the starting lineup, tweaked his neck and is not expected to miss any time. Bryant was hobbled a bit after his acrobatic catch at the end and was limited in practice. Bryant is Dallas' biggest threat downfield and must find a way to get on the field in Atlanta. Running back DeMarco Murray, hampered by a balky foot, may suit up to give Dallas a boost in the ground game. But it is not wise to rush the team's top runner back into the mix.
Sunday's problem for Dallas could be this: the Cowboys have a minus-11 in turnover ratio, while the Falcons are at plus-10.
Dallas leads the all-time series with Atlanta by a 16-8 margin, including the playoffs, and has won five of the past seven meetings. The Cowboys recorded a 37-21 victory the last time these two teams met on Oct. 25, 2009.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The main storyline for this matchup is obviously Ryan. The Falcons are 5-0 this season when Ryan has a passer rating of 100 or better and looks to duplicate their hot start from Philadelphia. However, the Giants ran out to a 23-0 lead and the Cowboys' defense made the proper adjustments.
Ryan, though, seems to be rising at the right time for Atlanta, which has converted 46.6 percent of its third downs (3rd in the NFL). Ryan, who already owns team records for most passing yards in a single season (4,177) and most pass attempts in a single season (571), has been nearly unstoppable at the Georgia Dome, going 29-4. More commonly known as "Matty Ice," Ryan has thrown multiple touchdowns in six of seven games this season and has at least one touchdown pass in 22 straight games. He has 34 career multi-TD games.
The offensive line may have given up two sacks, but Ryan has gone down just four times in the previous three weeks.
"I thought they did a nice job not only protecting the quarterback but also a nice job of run blocking," Smith said. "We got the run game going."
Dallas is 13th against the run, allowing 104.7 yards per game, and can expect a healthy dose of Michael Turner on Sunday. Even backup Jacquizz Rodgers got into the mix with 60 yards on eight carries.
The Cowboys' defensive backfield, which is third in passing yards allowed (187.7), will be in for a long night if they don't prepare for this matchup. As previously stated, Manning was put on the back burner and the Giants ran the ball effectively. Dallas can't get away with that this time or Turner will bulldoze his way across the field.
Ware leads the defense with 7 1/2 sacks and will be looking to tack on a few more Sunday. Ryan, however, is no statue in the pocket and can make defenders miss. Ware can't let that happen. It could be a problem if Connor's neck issue forces him to miss the game. An MRI on his neck revealed stretching of the nerves and that raises a flag healthwise. Orie Lemon replaced Connor in the second quarter in base defense, while Ernie Sims, who was acquired last week, played well in his Dallas debut.
Cowboys defensive backs Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr will need safety help up top to defend the speedy Jones and Roddy White. To make matters worse, the Falcons have future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez made the Philly linebackers work overtime last week even though he had three catches for 29 yards. It will be a challenging task keeping the Falcons' big three targets in check.
There are more stats to go around in this matchup than one can imagine. Most of them are attributed to Ryan and his hot start, his hot record at the Georgia Dome and his even more sizzling resume with a high passer rating. Romo has the ability to put up similar numbers, but just hasn't put together a stretch of games comparable to Ryan. Can the Cowboys come into the Peach State and pull off an upset with a determined defensive effort? Sure. Any team can. In a matchup that will most likely boil down to defense, the Cowboys won't be the team to unseat unbeaten Atlanta this week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 29, Cowboys 24
11/01 16:07:48 ET