FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons (4-5) need to pick up a win at home against the Dallas Cowboys (4-5) to remain in contention in the NFL playoff picture.
The Cowboys are very much in the same position, so this should be a tightly contested game with both sides playing with a lot of urgency. Dallas was without Ezekiel Elliott and starting left tackle Tyron Smith when it lost in Atlanta last season, but both are expected to be in the lineup and are playing well. Elliott will certainly be a key figure in this game, but there are some other matchups worth keeping an eye on.
Here are the three key matchups that could shape how this game unfolds:
1. Falcons' defensive front vs. Cowboys' run game
In this week's After Further Review, I reviewed the Falcons' performance against the run over the last two weeks. In short, Atlanta's ability to win at the line of scrimmage could go a long way in slowing down the Cowboy's run game.
That won't be an easy task, however, as the Cowboy's currently have the fifth-best rushing offense in the NFL, averaging 133.4 yards on the ground. Dallas' offensive line has played well of late and Ezekiel Elliott is coming off of a 151-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Falcons don't want a repeat performance of what happened in their loss to the Browns, so they will need to be sharp up front to stop Elliott before he gets going.
"We have great confidence in how to do that," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of getting the run defense back on track. "Just the fact that over the past few weeks we felt like we made progress and then took a step back.
"I thought from an evaluation of Dallas's run game. Excellent patience by the runner. He can wait, set it up and then when it's time to explode and hit it, I thought that's when he was at his best. So, tackling for sure and gap control and all the normal things that we talk about."
2. Amari Cooper vs. Falcons' secondary
In the two weeks since he joined the Cowboys, Amari Cooper has led all receivers in targets and catches. He's added an explosive element to Dallas' passing attack, and he should only continue to get more engrained in the offense as the season continues along.
The Falcons' secondary has been susceptible this season. Atlanta is giving up 294.4 yards per game through the air, which is the third-most in the NFL. Now, injuries and a plethora of other factors play into that number, but the Falcons haven't been a shutdown unit. The last thing the Falcons can afford to do is let Cooper have a breakout game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, allowing the Cowboys to effectively marry the passing game with a strong rushing attack.
"He can play inside the slot for a bigger guy, he's got the speed to go up top," Quinn said of Cooper. "He can make catches that are in traffic so they can feature him in a number of ways and I think that gives them a lot of versatility as an offense to say you can put him outside, you can put him inside, you can take shots to him – so he's pretty versatile in that way."
3. Falcons' third-down offense vs. Cowboys' third-down defense
This is a matchup that heavily favors the Falcons on paper. Atlanta has the No. 2 third-down offense in the league, converting 51.26 percent of the time. Dallas, meanwhile, has the fourth-worst third-down defense, allowing teams to pick up a first down at a 44.07-percent clip.
The reason this matchup could be key is it's one the Falcons need to capitalize on. When Atlanta's offense is playing at its best, they are able to convert third downs regularly. In the first half against the Redskins, the Falcons were perfect on third down en route to opening up a nice lead. In four of their five losses, including last week when Atlanta converted just 35.7 percent of its third downs, the Falcons have been well below their season average on third down. Keeping drives going will be key, especially against a defense that has had a tough time getting offenses off the field.
"I think where we missed our mark was on third-down," Quinn said. "The week before [against the Redskins] – that's life in the NFL – I think in the first [half] maybe we made them all. So, in the next seven days later [against the Browns], we didn't make all of them. To put it nicely. That also limited some of our opportunities, when we weren't able to convert on some of our third-down opportunities."