NFL Preview: New England Patriots @ Atlanta Falcons: Mac Jones to shine on primetime

On Thursday Night Football this week, the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons in a re-match of Super Bowl LI. Planet Sport previews the action.

The New England Patriots will be looking to make it five wins in a row when they take on the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday Night Football.

The Patriots (6-4) are a perfect 4-0 playing outside of Foxborough this season and with rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, becoming one of the NFL's surprise packages. With a Bill Belichick defense that is great at turning over the ball and Jones leading the offense, the Patriots are becoming a Super Bowl dark horse. 

It feels strange to refer to the Patriots as a dark horse considering all of the Super Bowls they won when they had Tom Brady at quarterback, but that is what they have become. 

With veteran quarterback, Matt Ryan, the Falcons (4-5) have had a mixed bag of a season. The team have struggled with missing personel, including number one wide receiver Calvin Ridley.

The two sides played each other in Super Bowl LI - arguably the greatest Super Bowl of all time. The Falcons led 28-9 late in the third quarter before Brady took the Patriots to a 34-28 victory in overtime. Any neutrals watching on Thursday will be hoping a similar spectacle is served up.

Planet Sport takes an in-depth look at Thursday night's clash.

Best bets: New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons under 17.5 6/5

New England Patriots over 33.5 5/2

New England Patriots -8.5 6/5

When: November 19, 2021 - 1.20am (BST)

Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

How to watch: NFL Game Pass/Sky Sports NFL

Background information: New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons

The two teams have met each other 15 times

The Patriots are one of the hottest teams in the NFL. They are currently enjoying a four-game win streak and have the chance to move top of the AFC East on Thursday night with a win.

Quarterback Mac Jones is one of the front runners for Offensive Rookie of the Year with five games with a 100+ passer rating, none of the other first-round quarterbacks have one game with 100+ passer rating between them.

The Patriots defense under Bill Belichick is always one of the most formidable in the NFL and this year is no exception. They have allowed the second-fewest points this season and the ninth-most sacks.

They enter the matchup against the Falcons following a statement 45-7 win over the Cleveland Browns. Jones threw for 198-yards and three touchdowns, while rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson rushed for 100-yards and claimed two touchdowns.

The Patriots juggernaut is rolling and it couldn't come a worse time for the Falcons. They come into the game off a 43-3 blowout at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys. It's not helped by having the worse scoring margin in the NFL with -85 behind only the winless Detroit Lions. The Falcons also haven't won playing at home in the United States, their one "home" win of the season coming against the New York Jets in London.

The only positive for the Falcons is that good teams have been inconsistent.

The same Dallas Cowboys that blew them out in Week 10 were almost shut out by the Denver Broncos in Week Nine. The Patriots themselves have a loss this season against the 3-7 Miami Dolphins. The NFL is the most unpredictable league and on a short week anything is possible.

Quarterback matchup: Mac Jones vs Matt Ryan

Both quarterbacks were take in the first round of the NFL draft 14 years apart

Mac Jones has grown leaps and bounds since Week One. His relationship with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is growing week by week. Against Cleveland, Jones had the best game of his career going 19-for-23 with a career-high three touchdown passes as he dismantled the Browns defense.

Before the start of the season, not many were considering Jones to be the best in his class but after 10 weeks he is proving the doubters wrong.

Whilst New England has found their franchise quarterback, Atlanta are unsure whether sticking with Matt Ryan is the best thing for them.

Ryan is in his 14th season as the Falcons quarterback and with the team headed for a long season a high draft pick and an opportunity to move on in 2022 could be on the cards.

He has had to pay the majority of this season with a smaller supporting cast, his number one wide receiver Calvin Ridley has been out with mental health issues, and no one else in that position has had more than 194-yards through nine games. 

Ryan's top target has been the rookie tight end, Kyle Pitts with 606-yards. But it's tough for the two of them to do it alone. Ryan comes into this week off the back of one of the worst games of his NFL career. Against the Cowboys, he produced a 21.4 passer rating after a no touchdown, two-interception 9-for-21 flop. He is also 0-4 against Patriots all time and there is little evidence to suggest that record will change on Thursday night. 

Key men

Damien Harris

Damien Harris is a two-time College Football Playoff Champion with the University of Alabama

New England running back Damien Harris has been the Robin to Mac Jones' Batman. Harris has rushed for 547-yards, seven touchdowns and has 63-receiving yards so far in the 2021 NFL season. The Falcons defense is ranked 21st against the run and Harris and the other Patriots running backs could exploit this weakness on Thursday night.

Alongside Harris, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson could also be a big factor in the run game. Last week against Cleveland, Stevenson had his first 100-yard rushing game in the NFL to cap off a breakout month for the fourth-round pick.

The balance of rushing the ball on first down could open up the game for Jones. The Cowboys employed the same tactic last week as they stormed to a mammoth win.

J.C. Jackson - New England Patriots

Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson has been a menace on the Patriots defense and has five interceptions on the season (tied for second-most in the NFL). He also has 14 passes defended which are the most in the league. In Week Nine against the Carolina Panthers, Jackson had two interceptions and a touchdown.

It is highly likely that on Thursday night Jackson will be tasked with guarding Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts as he is their premier receiving option. If Jackson is able to stop Pitts then this game could be just as one-sided as Atlanta's last game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Kyle Pitts - Atlanta Falcons

Kyle Pitts recorded his first NFL touchdown in his team's win over the New York Jets

Kyle Pitts has been one of the few bright sparks of the 2021 season for the Atlanta Falcons. Pitts was drafted fourth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, making him the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history. Pitts leads all Falcons' receivers with 606-yards and has just the one touchdown on the season.

What makes Pitts so special is his size and speed, making him a nightmare for defenses to cover. The ceiling is high for Pitts and he has the potential to be the league's best tight end and is also a frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Deion Jones - Atlanta Falcons

Deion Jones is one of the veterans of this Atlanta Falcons defense. He was drafted by the team back in 2016 and is on track to have a career-best year.

Jones has been one of the few bright spots on a poor Atlanta defense, which has just eight turnovers in nine games and an NFL-worst 11 sacks.

The Falcons defense have been on the receiving end of big losses throughout the season and Thursday has the potential to be another massive defeat if Jones and company can't get things sorted.

Previous matchups

James White scoring the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl LI

October 22, 2017: Atlanta Falcons 7 New England Patriots 23

In a rematch of Super Bowl LI, the Patriots continued their dominance over the Falcons are they won 23-7. The win saw New England move to 5-2 on the season as they hoped to make it to back-to-back Super Bowls.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 249-yards and two touchdowns. The game was a constant reminder for Falcons fans, players and coaches of their Super Bowl loss. There were t-shirts and posters depicting the iconic 28-3 scoreline all around Gillette Stadium. Not the best night for the Atlanta Falcons.

February 5, 2017: New England Patriots 34 Atlanta Falcons 28

In Super Bowl LI, the New England Patriots produced the greatest comeback in NFL history as they beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28.

No team had ever made up more than a 10-point deficit to win a Super Bowl and late in the third quarter, the Patriots were trailing 28-3. Tom Brady led the Patriots on five straight scoring drives, the last of which wrapped up the overtime victory.

It is hard to put into words just how incredible the comeback was from Brady and the Patriots. It is arguably the greatest Super Bowl ever played.

September 29, 2013: New England Patriots 30 Atlanta Falcons 23

Back in 2013 America was divided by what to watch on TV. The Patriots against the Falcons or the series finale of Breaking Bad. Those that watched the game were treated to a great back and forth clash then ended in the Patriots moving to 4-0 for the first time since 2007.

New England quarterback Tom Brady threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns in his best outing of the season. The Patriots built a 30-13 lead before the Falcons rallied. Atlanta had a chance to tie it up in the final minute, but Aqib Talib knocked away Matt Ryan's fourth-down pass for Roddy White in the end zone with 36 seconds remaining.