Mystery abounds as the Atlanta Falcons fly into Meadowlands for the second time this season, seeking a victory to momentarily steady a crumbling campaign once containing endless promise.

The Falcons’ inconsistent opponent is flirting with a playoff berth, in the midst of a bizarre excursion of their own, featuring two separate three game losing streaks sprinkled amid spectacular, championship caliber play.

While a detailed study of the schizophrenic identities defining these two teams sure would be interesting, more tangible matters provide plenty of intrigue.  

Quarterback play, perhaps the most vital aspect of any game analysis, is impossible to predict as it concerns this Sunday’s crucial throw-down. Indeed, there are far more questions than answers. Will Matt Ryan, nursing an injured big toe on his right foot, suit up? He returned to practice this Thursday. Ryan’s effectiveness, in cold weather against a tough defense backed by a boisterous crowd and playing banged up, will not be certain until the definitive results begin bearing themselves out.

 The Boston College product enjoyed a magic carpet ride in his rookie season, a key catalyst lifting the Falcons from a complete abyss. Ryan was faced with elevating a team that had seen its previous franchise quarterback placed under arrest and behind bars, not to mention the embarrassing exit of Bobby Petrino, who abandoned a fractured locker room. Ryan, along with new Coach Mike Smith, General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, and running back Michael Turner, were seen as saviors after producing a shocking output of eleven wins in 2008.

This year, Ryan has been unable to avoid the earthbound gravitational pull claiming most inexperienced pro signal callers. His immediate excellence practically screamed outlier. But it seemed the freshman follies Ryan previously parried were haunting him before the toe injury, his completion percentage plummeting and interceptions rising.

The regression of Ryan, an injury to Turner, and a far less explosive defense, have conspired against a continued Falcons renaissance. John Abraham, in particular, has seen his statistics take a nosedive. “John has not had the sack production that he had last year in 2008. He had 16.5 sacks. His production is down this year,” admitted Smith, though he did add, “But I think he’s had a very solid year.”

 Though Atlanta’s core remains extremely strong, their current level of performance brands them a team the Jets should definitely beat, especially at home.

And New York is primed to complete such a task.  But the Jets are not without their own set of fragile variables.

Mark Sanchez was seen at practice wearing braces on both knees. His forward dive against Buffalo cost him a game, and drew the ire of his head coach. The organization obviously hopes a lesson has been learned, and that Sanchez is totally healthy against the Falcons. But even if his knees weren’t an issue, the inconsistent performance of the rookie has been a detriment all year long, outright costing the Jets multiple games. 

How will this man play on Sunday? Stay tuned for Unsolved Mysteries with Robert Stack to find out.

While Matt Ryan’s weaknesses took time to manifest, Sanchez’s pro Baptism has taken a more predictable track. There were superb flashes early, a fleeting preview of a fully developed quarterback. Those initial fantasies disintegrated, a nauseating roller-coaster ride left in wake. The Jets made this bargain on their own volition, fully aware that a volatile rookie could submarine an otherwise accomplished roster. Considering the other available options, this painful learning experience will probably be viewed successful, in the long run. The short-term presents uncertainty, and potential disappointment, considering that nearly every other facet of the team is operating at peak capacity.

Jay Feely is tearing it up, receiving plaudits from Special Teams coach Mike Westhoff. “He’s done a heck of a job,” said Westhoff. “He’s as solid as can be. We’re really happy with Jay. I don’t know where the heck we’d be without the field goals because we’ve had to score. He’s done a good job every time we’ve asked him. Last week, we’re trying three of them at 49 yards or so. It’s just tough. Jay has been very consistent. He’s a good pro.” The special teams struggled to recover from the loss of key parts like Jason Trusnik after the depth depleting Braylon Edwards acquisition, but Mike Westhoff has his troops back in line, including new return man Brad Smith, displaying considerable potential in his new role.  

The defensive line has performed admirably in the absence of Kris Jenkins, especially lately. Shaun Ellis has been a certifiable monster. Darrelle Revis leads a solid secondary, which jumps a few levels upward whenever Lito Sheppard is healthy, and Kerry Rhodes properly motivated. Take a good look at the Jets, and it’s hard to find fault… except in the passing game.  

After a spectacular debut, Edwards has struggled to find stride. Jerricho Cotchery started strong but has seen his production curtailed by injuries and other extenuating factors. These issues shouldn’t be blamed all on the quarterback, though Sanchez does possess a fair share of responsibility.

If the Jets could mount even a respectable aerial assault in these final three weeks, they will be a force to be reckoned with. Otherwise, this potentially devastating collection of talent still has an Achilles heel.

As it concerns this Sunday, I see too many advantages favoring New York for the Falcons to steal one.  The potential for a blizzard sets the Jets up quite nicely to test a below average Atlanta run defense. The Falcons overall defense is mediocre, but the Jets will feel totally comfortable camouflaging their principal weakness with a slew of handoffs to Jones and Shonn Greene, especially if the precipitation is falling. The Falcons sport a variety of nifty offensive toys, including all world tight end Tony Gonzalez and big play receiver Roddy White. But freezing conditions, brutal wind, and snow do not present the ideal setting for the returns of Ryan and Turner. Ryan, especially, will be hard pressed not to struggle against a cohesive Jets defense.  Should Ryan and Turner be absent, and they are game-time decisions according to Mike Smith, the Falcons’ will be at an even greater disadvantage. Chris Redman lit up against New Orleans, but that was at home in a dome.

It may not be pretty, but Thomas Jones will have the last word.

This guy? Less mysterious.
This guy? Less mysterious.

New York Jets 20 Atlanta Falcons 9 



Rex Ryan shared a few interesting morsels of information during his daily press conference.

Mark Sanchez will start this Sunday.  Though this decision was never in serious doubt, an official announcement was held back until today.

On when Ryan made the call: “After practice. We went into practice thinking he would be fine, so he was going to get 100 percent of the reps. After talking with the doctors, they felt great. Our medical staff felt great about where he was at. Mark feels strong… we will never put any athlete out there if we don’t think he’s ready to play, able to protect himself and stay healthy.”

On preparing Sanchez for the snow: “We put so UGG boot stuff in his helmet so he’s going to be warmer. I’m not kidding. Look at his helmet. He’s got some of that in there.”

Did Sanchez take all the snaps today? : “He took all the snaps with the ones.”

Jay Feely is having a monster season, but Ryan is well aware that the Jets need to finish more drives with six points more often, instead of three: “You would definitely like to finish and if you’re in those kind of games, the math doesn’t work. You need to score when you’re in the red zone. We’ve probably worked down there as much anybody. We feel good about our red zone. We just need to make sure we knock it in there somehow. Sometimes, like last week, we weren’t going to risk it. Any type of risk at all we were like, ‘We’ve got the game pretty well where we want it. We feel good about it. We got three. We feel great about Jay…’ I think it might have been a little product of why we couldn’t get it in there.”

Feel the consistency.
Feel the consistency.

Nick Mangold continues to battle an unspecified illness. He is listed as probable for this week, and was sent home from the facility again today. Ryan was reassuring about Mangold’s chances of playing this Sunday: “He was here and we sent him home again. That’s two days in a row… give him his meds and let him stay home and get rested. He’s going to be fine. He knows this system better than anybody.”

Sixth Round offensive lineman Matt Slauson is developing well, according to Ryan. The versatile Slauson may see action at center should Mangold be unavailable against the Falcons. Ryan doesn’t seemed concerned about a possible downgrade: “He’s [Slauson] really come on. He’s a left guard only… that was where we were working him.. then it’s left guard and right guard. Now he’s backing up center. I feel good about him. I think he can do the job. I think he’s a little nervous right now with his shout gun snaps. He’s maybe not as consistent as I think he will be down the road.”

Chris Redman began his NFL career in Baltimore, giving Ryan a unique perspective of his talents: “He’s no slouch. I was with him in Baltimore.” No doubt.

Calvin Pace is terrorizing offenses, collecting six sacks despite missing the first four games of the season. Ryan is duly impressed with the mayhem. “Right now this is his defense. In other words, he’s really bought into it, I think he knows it. We do some different things with him and [Bryan] Thomas. We can flip who is the SAM and who is the rush. We can do all those different things. He’s got an excellent grasp of our system. You’re seeing his physical talents, which we all know. They’re obvious. He’s a very gifted player.”
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