The Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons kick off the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football schedule tonight in the Georgia Dome and it should be a great battle of 6-2 division leaders. The Ravens share a portion of the AFC North lead while the Falcons sit atop the NFC South. Both teams boast third year QB's from the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. When their respective statistics for both the 2010 season and careers were compared side-by-side in a story posted yesterday, there was virtually a mirror image between the two. So with the QB position looking pretty even, what will be the difference in tonight's game to determine which team emerges the victor?
The biggest difference in comparing the two QB's was the five playoff games and three road wins that the Ravens' Joe Flacco has in his resume versus the one lone playoff loss that the Falcons' Matt Ryan has had. Without stating that this makes Flacco the better quarterback, it does hint that he has had a better group of players around him. The defense has always kept the Ravens in the game and allowed Flacco to manage the game without putting the pressure on the QB to carry the team on his arm. Ryan has not had that type of supporting cast, but the Falcons defense has improved this season to his benefit.
While this is not the Ravens defense of old, much less the past two years, they are a lot more opportunistic with the recent return of free safety Ed Reed. Reed has three interception in those two games, already putting him among the league leaders and forcing opposing QB's to make note of where he lines up. Ray Lewis is one f the older players in the league, but still makes plays every game and disrupts offenses in addition to laying out players on bone-rattling hits. DT Haloti Ngata was just named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts in the Ravens 26-10 beatdown of the Miami Dolphins. So despite the team's obvious shortcomings in the cornerback position, the defense is still one of the most feared one in the NFL.
Offensively is where the Ravens have made the most improvement and now have the receiving threats to keep opponents from stacking the box and shutting down the running game. flacco has a bevy of choices each time he drops back and if he gets pass protection, he can rocket the ball anywhere on the field or check down to RB Ray Rice, who is as dangerous as any player when he gets the ball in space.
The Atlanta Falcons boast one of the game's best wide receivers in Roddy White and running backs in Michael Turner. Personally, I am more concerned about stopping Turner gashing the Ravens surprisingly poor run defense than White's abilities to get open deep for Ryan's throws. Ed Reed will play center field and cheat to White's side and the rest of the secondary will keep an eye on TE Tony Gonzalez. If the Ravens can put some pressure on Ryan to force him to get rid of the ball early, it will help the secondary cover the receivers. That leaves the front seven's ability to contain the bruising Turner, which should determine the game.
Both teams have the ability to put points on the board, so take the over if you are a wagering fool. The kicking game is pretty even, with both placekickers solid and punters as well. The Ravens kick coverage team is very good and while their kick returners have been poor, the changes made last week on both punt and kickoff returns has had positive effects. The game will come down to who makes the least mistakes in turnovers and penalties, as well as slowing down the Falcons run game to force them to beat us through the air.
Finally, the intangibles that include the home field advantage that Atlanta has enjoyed (17-1 at home in Ryan's career), plus the Ravens seemingly problematic issues on prime time TV, should swing the tide in the Falcons favor. This will be a great test for Baltimore and while the stats might be even and the home field advantage goes to the Falcons, I see the Ravens playing sixty solid minutes on both sides of the ball and winning what should be a shoot-out by our standards.
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