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Catching up with … the Falcons

07.19.13 at 12:32 pm ET
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Matt Ryan will lead the Falcons against the Patriots this September. (AP)

Matt Ryan will lead the Falcons against the Patriots this September. (AP)

As we count down to the start of training camp, we’ll take a look at all 13 opponents on the Patriots’ regular-season schedule and break down each one of them. We’ve already featured the Bills, Jets and Buccaneers. Now, it’s the Falcons.

Specifics: The Patriots travel to Atlanta to meet the Falcons on Sept. 29. It’ll be the second NFC South clash of the season for New England — the Patriots will be coming off a meeting with the Bucs in Foxboro the week before.

Say goodbye to … running back Michael Turner, offensive tackle Tyson Clabo, defensive lineman John Abraham, defensive back Dunta Robinson, center Todd McClure.

Welcome … running back Steven Jackson, cornerback Desmond Trufant, defensive lineman Osi Umenyiora.

Recent history: This will be the 13th meeting all-time between New England and Atlanta. The teams have each won six games, but the Patriots have won the last three meetings, including a 26-10 victory in Foxboro on Sept. 27. 2009. (In an otherwise forgettable season, that game was memorable for a couple of reasons, not the least of which came when quarterback Tom Brady barked, “It’s not that [bleeping] hard!” at former New England receiver Joey Galloway after the veteran pass catcher continued to struggle in his attempts to pick up the Patriots offense.) The last time the Falcons beat New England was Nov. 8, 1998, at Foxboro Stadium.

The Patriots should be worried because … like the Bucs (who we profiled in this space Thursday), this is a pretty good team that was the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs last year and a play or two away from going to the Super Bowl. Quarterback Matt Ryan is one of the best young signal-callers in the league, and the Falcons had three guys (Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez) catch at least 79 passes last year. To augment their passing game, they added Jackson, who has eight straight 1,000-yard seasons on his resume. The Falcons can put up points with the best of them — they averaged 26.2 points per game last year, seventh in the league — and will present a great challenge for the New England defense at an early point in the season.

The Patriots shouldn’t be worried because … like most of the rest of the NFC South — at least based on last year’s numbers — you can move the ball up and down the field on the Falcons. Atlanta was in the top 10 in yards allowed, average yards per game allowed, passing yards allowed and average passing yards per game. (The question is whether or not you can score on them. While they yield some of the highest yardage totals in the league, they were fifth in the NFL last season in points allowed with 299 and points per game allowed with 18.7.) One area of uncertainty the Patriots might be able to exploit is the Atlanta pass rush. The Falcons released Abraham — PFF had him graded as the fifth-best DE in the league last season with a 21.1 overall grade, to go along with 10 sacks. In his place, they signed Umenyiora, who has seen his sack numbers drop the last three years. It remains to be seen how successful the transition will be.

The skinny: This will be a terrific early season litmus test for the Patriots, who will be faced with the unappetizing prospect of having to go on the road to face a team that made it to the NFC title game last year. Conversely, the Falcons will almost certainly look at this as a measuring-stick game for themselves — if they can knock off New England in September, they will feel pretty good about where they are a month into the season. (The move to bolster the running game with the addition of Jackson is a sign the Falcons are in win-now mode — in Atlanta, nothing less than a return to the conference championship will do.) While it doesn’t have the same rivalry feeling as a game against the Ravens, for the Patriots — at least on the surface — this has all the same earmarks as the memorable September 2012 meeting against the Ravens in Baltimore: a nationally televised game on the road, an early season matchup against a powerful team that reached the conference finals the year before and figures to use New England as a measuring stick. This should be a very good football game.

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