AtlantaFalcons.com contributing writer Daniel Cox gets you ready for Sunday's game with his five keys to a Falcons victory, including ignoring the antics of the Bengals' wide receivers, focusing on some of Cincinnati's lesser-known players and coming out of the gate strong in Week 7 at home.
On the surface, Sunday's Week 7 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals should be a sure thing.
A 4-2 Falcons squad, coming off an embarrassing loss on the road last week at the hands of the Eagles versus the 2-3 Bengals.
It's when you dig deeper that you realize this is a mysterious game.
In a crowded AFC North, the Bengals risk losing their season early on by dropping to 2-4. With their backs against the wall, coming off a bye, this well-coached team will be ready to go.
The numbers don't reveal much either. Cincinnati is statistically in the middle of the league in virtually every category which spells danger. They're a team that can win 20-7 despite two interceptions from their quarterback, Carson Palmer, and lose 21-14 when their running back rushes for 144 yards.
With plenty of film from the past two weeks to show some of Atlanta's weaknesses, the Falcons will need to show that their 4-1 start was in no way a fluke and the real mirage is the performance they put forth last week.
What's lost in Atlanta's 4-2 start is that four of the first six games this season came on the road. Now back home for four weeks (three games and a bye week), they're positioned well to continue their rise to the division's elite. A 5-2 record will keep them on that path.
A look at the five keys that could ensure a Falcons victory in Week 7:
Starting quickly:In the past three games Atlanta has been outscored 28-0 in the first quarter. A team that once held pride in starting fast needs to get back to its roots and they hope it begins this week against the Bengals.
"We've got to start faster," head coach Mike Smith said Monday. "Historically since we've been here, this is a team that has started fast. We've outscored our opponents significantly in the first quarter; we are not doing it right now. It's something that we have to continue to work on. It's something that we as a coaching staff, it's not just the players, it's the coaching staff. We've got to make sure that we put our guys in the best opportunity to be successful. Right now, we're not getting that done."
A fast start can put Cincinnati under the gun and force quarterback Carson Palmer to force some throws. His six interceptions this season is uncharacteristic and Atlanta could capitalize if they can bring out the mistakes.
Cast of characters:Cincinnati's offense isn't short on personalities, starting with the often-discussed wide receiver duo of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. The Falcons will obviously be geared up to slow down the combination, but there are others on the offense, lesser-known players that could be difference makers.
Rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham is having a nice season and is something of a safety net for Palmer. If Atlanta can slow the deep passing game and the running game, Gresham could be the target for Palmer with starting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon out Sunday.
A rookie wide receiver could be the key to the entire game. After watching the Falcons-Eagles film, the Bengals may want to throw in some variety into their playbook and Jordan Shipley could be the benefactor.
A quick, shifty receiver who runs solid routes and has good hands; Shipley has a long of 51 yards this season and is averaging 12.7 yards per catch. If there's a guy that can find the holes in Atlanta's offense in the middle of the field and in the intermediate range, it's this third-round pick.
Stay home:That Falcons-Eagles film showed a team whose aggressiveness on defense can be taken advantage of.
Against the Eagles, Atlanta was burned on reverses and fake reverses, often biting on their first read and letting a wide receiver get free for big gains. Shipley could play a role in that game plan should Cincinnati choose to execute it.
The Falcons will need to be disciplined in their reads and allow themselves to let a play develop before going after what they think they're seeing. They've studied what went wrong last week and they've been coached on the ins and outs of reverse plays. They'll need to put it to work because the worst-kept secret in Week 7 is that the Bengals won't try some variation of what worked for Philadelphia last week.
Silence, please:Owens and Ochocinco are talkers and not only do they use their words and their actions to motivate themselves, they use them as tools to influence the opponent.
This week Ochocinco was up to his old tricks and he'd like nothing more than to score a few touchdowns and remind the Falcons defenders how he did it. Atlanta's defense is a good mix of seasoned veterans and energetic young players and they'll need to watch each others backs to make sure everyone stays grounded.
A retaliation against either receiver by Atlanta will only add fuel to the fire and could prompt a field position and mental meltdown by the defense.
Keep him clean:In recent weeks Atlanta's blue-collar offensive line have not performed as well as they have in the past in keeping quarterback Matt Ryan off the ground.
In the past three weeks they've given up eight sacks and while the Bengals pass rush pressure isn't statistically stout, it can be better than it seems.
For starters, they're returning hard-working defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene who has six sacks last season. Second-year end Michael Johnson is as athletically gifted as any player on the field and in recent weeks has been used more at end. Rookie defensive tackle Geno Atkins is moving up the depth chart and in an effort to get more pass-rushing quickness in the middle he could be used even more.
Ryan's faced the pressure from opposing defenses well, standing strong in the pocket and making good decisions, but one can only imagine what he can accomplish should he be given more time to study the defense and allow his receivers to get to open spots on the field.