FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- I know, I know: You're probably mentally, physically and emotionally preparing to watch a bit of college football on this fine Saturday. Don't worry, that's what I'm doing, too. But don't forget there's a pretty big game in Atlanta on Sunday, too, with the Falcons facing the Chargers at home.
Atlanta is pushing through some injuries, but so is L.A. It's a matchup that at one point looked to lean the Chargers way, but with the Falcons back to .500 it feels like it could be anyone's game.
So, as you chow down on your tailgate food, or are making sure the TV is turned to the right channel, sit back and take a quick look at this week's "Five things to watch" as the Falcons host the Chargers on Sunday.
1. Cordarrelle Patterson's availability
It's the question on everyone's minds, right? Well, perhaps the question on every fantasy owner's mind: How much - or how little - will we see Patterson on Sunday against the Chargers?
Patterson returned to practice this week after being on injured reserve following a minor knee procedure four weeks ago. The veteran running back said on Wednesday that he's probably as close to 100 percent as he's going to get.
"I would say about 90 percent," Patterson said. "At this point in time, nobody is 100 percent. We're in Week 9 so nobody is going to feel 100 percent, so feeling at 90 percent right now, I feel pretty good."
When asked about Patterson's availability on Friday, Arthur Smith said the coaching staff will make a decision on Saturday. Patterson is very much trending towards a return, and it wouldn't be surprising if the Falcons announced said move off injured reserve soon.
The question almost isn't if Patterson returns, it's how much we'll see him when he does.
The Falcons are on a short week following the Chargers game on Sunday, having to face Carolina on the road this coming Thursday night. Could Patterson's usage on Sunday be limited because of the short week? Smith said you can't look at it that way as a coach. You're only worried about the next game, he said, not the game after next.
Regardless, Patterson's return indicates a good problem for the Falcons to have as Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley have done very well for themselves in Patterson's absence. Through the last four games, Allgeier has accumulated 185 rushing yards, averaging just over three yards a carry with two touchdowns (one receiving and one rushing). In the same timespan, Huntley has done even better. The former practice squad elevation has surpassed the 200-yard rushing mark through the last four games. He's averaging 4.5 yards a carry.
So, no. The Falcons are not hurting for rushing production. Allgeier and Huntley have done quite well for themselves. But getting Patterson back does add another later to the Falcons offense. It's one Smith has said he's excited to get back.
2. Offensive line shakeup
Staying on the topic of offensive movements, the Falcons have ruled out left guard Elijah Wilkinson ahead of Sunday's game. Wilkinson did not participate in practice this week as he deals with a knee injury.
The veteran guard has been one of the best - if not an incredibly overlooked - acquisitions of the offseason by the Falcons front office. Left guard was a position that has fluctuated greatly in recent years in Atlanta. Through the first half of the season, Wilkinson brought a consistency that one could argue the position hasn't seen in a while.
Wilkinson will miss Sunday's game, though, and potentially more with that knee injury. In his place, it's looking like Matt Hennessy could be trending in the direction of slotting in for him.
Though it was Colby Gossett who took over for Wilkinson in Seattle when Wilkinson had to miss the Seahawks game because of a personal matter, Hennessy has been the one taking the majority of the first-team left guard reps during the open practice periods this week.
Though this may have come as a surprise to some, it's something that's been in the works for a while now, with Hennessy telling AtlantaFalcons.com that he's been transitioning to left guard since Drew Dalman was named the starting center in Week 1.
How Hennessy - or even Gossett - fairs in Wilkinson's absence will be something to monitor on Sunday.
3. Yet another test for the Falcons secondary
Dean Pees had high praise to give to Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert this week, commending his arm strength as well as his accuracy during his media availability.
"I think he's very smart and I think they have a great system that he fits in very, very well. I give them credit, too. They do things to help all quarterbacks, but he's an exceptional talent," Pees said. "He's one of those new young quarterbacks like (Josh) Allen that are coming along and are just the next Peyton Mannings and Bradys and those guys. They are. They're good. They're real good."
After facing Joe Burrow and Co. two weeks ago, and an upward trending P.J. Walker and D.J. Moore last week without the likes of Casey Hayward, A.J. Terrell and Jaylinn Hawkins, the Falcons secondary will face yet another test with Herbert on Sunday. Though Hayward is likely on injured reserve for the long haul, and Terrell still out with a hamstring injury, the Falcons did get a bit of good news with Hawkins returning from concussion protocol this week. He is expected to play on Sunday.
However, it's still likely the starting cornerbacks will be Darren Hall and Cornell Armstrong, the latter of which has been individually targeted 17 times in the last two weeks.
For what it's worth, though, the Chargers and Herbert will be without some of their most productive offensive playmakers on Sunday, too.
Wide receivers Mike Williams (ankle) and Keenan Allen (hamstring) have been ruled out of Sunday's game, as has tight end Donald Parham (hamstring). William's absence is the most notable as he accounts for almost 500 receiving yards through the first seven games of the season. Meanwhile, DeAndre Carter (illness) was listed as questionable on Friday. The lone good news for the Chargers is that they'll see the return of receiver Josh Palmer who has been working through concussion protocol.
How the Falcons and Chargers matchup with their defensive backs and receiving weapons may be the matchup of the game.
4. Limiting explosives
I said this after the Falcons loss in Cincinnati two Sunday's ago. I said it again following the overtime win against the Panthers last Sunday. So, third time's a charm, right?
Sticking with the defense a little longer, the biggest difference in this unit's success lies in how often they can limit explosive plays. Through the last two games, the Falcons have given up 17 explosive plays of 20 yards or more (10 against the Bengals and seven against the Panthers). This has been a lingering issues as the Falcons gave up 174 yards of offense by way of explosive plays in the fourth quarter of the loss to the Saints in Week 1.
Atlanta knows what the Chargers like to do with Herbert in the pocket: Cut that strong and accurate arm loose, right? Right.
If the Falcons can better limit explosives (particularly those that have been accumulated on third down) it could be the difference in the game.
5. A need to start fast
As I pointed out extensively in my notebook on Monday, the Falcons offense saw on Sunday why it's so important they start every game out on the right foot. Against Carolina, a slow start hindered the Falcons offensive production, eventually playing a part in the teams going to overtime.
Like the defensive section above, these slow starts are something that are most obvious in losses and close games. The issue, though, is that there really isn't a straight forward answer as to how to rectify the issue. If you look at it, the slow starts Atlanta's offense have had this year actually have different causes.
Even with that being said, though, the most obvious way this can change is if the Falcons do not give up negative plays as an offense. So, we're talking tackles for a loss and sacks.
Against the Panthers on Sunday, those negative plays are what contributed to Atlanta only having 50 net yards as an offense by the end of the first half. Though Carolina wasn't doing much better at that same point, for Atlanta to have the starts it wants - and needs - that number likely needs to be well over 100.
Can they start hot on Sunday against the Chargers? It could be quite a confidence booster for this offense if it can.
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Los Angeles Chargers.