The Atlanta Falcons will be in Orchard Park on Sunday for a game against the Buffalo Bills for the first time since September 25, 2005. In that game, Michael Vick was Atlanta’s quarterback, and he outdueled J.P. Losman in a game where the running attacks ruled the day. Willis McGahee had 140 yards and a touchdown for the Bills, while Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett combined for 172 yards and a touchdown.
The last time these two teams played in a “home” game for the Bills was back in December 2013, when Atlanta won an overtime game at Rogers Centre in Toronto, 34-31. The Bills sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan six times in that contest, but they couldn’t hold a fourth-quarter lead.
The situation this time around is far different, as the Bills are looking to move closer to clinching the AFC East Division title for the second straight year, while the Falcons are sitting at 7-8 on the year and are clinging to thin playoff hopes. If the Bills are going to end Atlanta’s playoff dreams while cementing their own, they’ll need to contain the Falcons’ top players.
Here’s who we’re watching this week.
QB Matt Ryan
Ryan ranks eighth all-time in passing yards (59,322), tied for ninth in passing touchdowns (366), and 13th in passer rating (94.3). His 33 fourth-quarter comebacks are tied with Dan Marino for sixth all-time in what is almost certain to be a Hall of Fame career. Part of the reason why he’s sometimes overlooked is that he’s only led his team to the playoffs in six of his 14 seasons, winning just four playoff games. However, that’s through no fault of his own, and Ryan remains an accurate passer with a strong arm even in his age-36 season. Unlike most modern quarterbacks, though, Ryan is not what anyone would call “elusive,” and he’s taken 32 sacks this year. If the Bills can bring some pressure up the middle while also taking the over routes away, they could force Ryan into some errant throws to the outside while also doling out some punishment.
RB Cordarrelle Patterson
Patterson has had quite an interesting NFL career. A marginal wide receiver, Patterson made his name as one of the most dynamic return men in NFL history, as his eight kickoff return touchdowns and 29.4 yards per kick return average would suggest. In his age-30 season, however, he’s been used more as a running back, and he’s flourished as a result. Patterson has 140 carries for 579 yards and six touchdowns, all of which are career highs, in addition to his 49 receptions for 523 yards and five receiving touchdowns. At 6’2” and 220 lbs, Patterson is a load, so the Bills are going to need to be sound in their fundamentals in order to slow him on the ground. Look for Ryan and the Falcons to try giving Patterson the ball on screens, too, to take advantage of his speed and elusiveness.
TE Kyle Pitts
Most rookie tight ends take time to acclimate to the pro game, but Pitts has jumped in and played like a veteran from the jump. He leads the Falcons in targets (101), receptions (64), and receiving yards (949), but he has only caught one touchdown on the year. Pitts will line up as a tight end, as a slot receiver, as a flanker—you name it, he can do it. At 6’6” and 246 lbs, Buffalo doesn’t have anyone even close to his size who can stick with him on the outside. It will probably be up to Tremaine Edmunds to handle him in the middle. Look for Atlanta to try to isolate him on Buffalo’s smaller corners on the outside, allowing Ryan to throw his big tight end some jump balls.
LB Foyesade Oluokun
Atlanta’s middle linebacker is second in the league in total tackles with 166, trailing only Bobby Wagner of the Seattle Seahawks. Oluokun is fifth in solo tackles, as well. The sixth-round draft choice out of Yale in the 2018 NFL Draft has developed into an outstanding all-field linebacker, and his speed allows him to cover plenty of ground. The team lists him at 6’2” and just 215 lbs, so he’s definitely not the size of the traditional middle linebacker; however, he more than makes up for it with toughness and plus athleticism. Buffalo will need to account for him in the running game, and they should be able to wash him out with larger blockers in power concepts.
CB A.J. Terrell
I’m a big A.J. Terrell fan, and the 6’1” corner from Clemson is having a solid year. He has 14 pass breakups in his second professional season, and he’ll probably have the unenviable task of shadowing Stefon Diggs for most of the day. Josh Allen will need to trust that his guy can win the matchup, and if the offensive line can protect him, it will be a good battle to watch on the perimeter. Terrell has allowed just 37 completions, 362 yards, and an average of 4.9 yards per target as the closest man in coverage this year. He nearly has as many interceptions (2) as touchdowns allowed (3). This will be a great matchup on Sunday.