(Sports Network) - When the 2012 season began, the Atlanta Falcons were trying
to shake off the disappointment of yet another premature playoff disaster.
Five weeks and five wins later, they're trying to keep themselves from getting
too giddy over a better-than-hoped-for response to adversity.
Coach Mike Smith's team can remain the NFC's lone unbeaten entity when they
host the Oakland Raiders Sunday in the Georgia Dome. As a bonus, a victory
will allow Smith to equal the franchise record for victories -- set
at 49 by Dan Reeves -- in his 70th game at the helm.
"It is a great start for us, it really is," quarterback Matt Ryan said."At
this point, you can't really worry about what is going on in the history of
our organization, but we have put ourselves right where we need to be five
games into it."
Through five games, Ryan has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,507
yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions, helping the Falcons stay
with Houston as the only 5-0 teams in football.
Balanced in its production, Atlanta is fifth in the league in scoring offense
(29.6 points) and fifth in defense (18.6).
Conversely, the Raiders emerge from a Week 5 bye after winning just once in
four games and are 30th in scoring defense (31.2 points) and 25th in total
defense (411.5 yards). In two road games, Oakland has been outscored, 72-19,
in losses at Miami and Denver.
"This team's got a whole different attitude about going out there and
expecting to win," Atlanta receiver Roddy White said.
But it hasn't been all run-ups and routs for the Falcons. They went to the
final seconds before a game-winning field goal to defeat Carolina on Sept. 30
and rallied from a 17-14 deficit to top Washington last week.
Veteran speedster White is on the NFL leaderboard with 31 catches, 481 yards
and three TDs. Tight end Tony Gonzalez leads the league with 39 catches and
has 388 yards and four touchdowns.
The 36-year-old caught 13 passes for 123 yards and a score against the
Redskins. In 23 career games against Oakland - most during his days with the
Kansas City Chiefs -- he's got 110 receptions, 1,473 yards and eight TDs.
"We're not going to stick our head in the sand," Raiders coach Dennis Allen
said. "We're going to evaluate everything and see what things we need to
improve on and where we can get better."
A new Allen defense has included varied fronts, blitzes and coverage schemes,
but Oakland foes have nonetheless connected on 71.5 percent of passes and
converted 53.3 percent of third downs while the Raiders have compiled just
three sacks and forced three turnovers. Injuries have forced personnel
switches in the backfield, where safety Michael Huff has shifted to
"You're not going to win many games in this league if you can't win on third
down," defensive tackle Richard Seymour said.
And it's not as if the offense has been a bright spot.
The Raiders had only 237 yards in a 37-6 loss to Denver in Week 4. Oakland's
been successful on only 27.5 percent of its own third downs and has gained
just 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. In one win, Darren McFadden rushed for 113
yards with a TD. In three losses, he has 88 yards and has not scored.
Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey may finally return after a head injury
sustained against Pittsburgh last month. In limited 2012 duty, he has nine
catches for 98 yards and a touchdown.
Oakland leads the all-time series, 7-5, and has won three of the last five
games, but Atlanta won both the last time the teams played -- in California,
24-0, in 2008 -- and the last time they met at the Georgia Dome, 35-10, in
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The good news for Oakland strong safety Tyvon Branch is that it's the last
time he's likely to face Atlanta's Gonzalez on an NFL field. The bad news is
that Gonzalez, a slam-dunk Hall of Famer after he retires, has been more
prodigious against the Raiders than any other team. A week after racking up
the aforementioned 13 catches and 123 yards against the Redskins, Gonzalez
heads into the matchup feeling sentimental.
"(Oakland) was the first team I ever won against," he said. "I played them in
my second game of the season. Monday Night Football. We won like on the last
play of the game with Andre Rison. That was in 1997. Shoot, my longest catch
ever came against them, 73 yards for a touchdown, out there in Oakland."
Branch said the key to slowing the old man down is changing up the approach.
"Diversifying your defense is the best defense," he said. "So I'm sure we're
going to throw some different looks at him."
In his fifth season as a pro, Branch has started three of four games this
season and recorded 25 tackles. In 60 career games in the league, he's made
279 tackles, intercepted three passes, defended 15 and forced three fumbles.
At some point, the Falcons will trip over a game most expect them to win. But
given the struggles of the Oakland offense to stay on the field and the
defense to keep foes off of it, that stumble doesn't figure to be here.
Atlanta has enough weapons to switch from one to another if needed, and
that'll be enough to get Smith his milestone win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 28, Raiders 17
The Sports Network