In our little corner of the sporting world, Sunday night’s matchup between the Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons is a prime-time proving ground for the local football team.
It’s all about the Patriots legitimizing their 3-0 start, providing evidence that their defensive dominance is not derived from inchoate quarterback competition, and demonstrating that their passing game hiccups are the result of needing more time, not more talent.
The general feeling is that it’s the Patriots who have to break out the ruler and see if they measure up against Matt Ryan and the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. The Patriots have become such a Super Bowl-or-bust, win-it-all-or-nothing enterprise that sometimes it’s easy to forget how they’re viewed around the rest of the National Football League. Sunday night represents as much of a measuring stick game for the Falcons as it does the Patriots.
Not only does 1-2 Atlanta need a victory to keep pace with the rival New Orleans Saints, but a win is validation for what general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who studied at Belichick University while he was with the Patriots from 2002-07, serving as a national scout and then director of college scouting, and his staff have constructed over the past five years in Atlanta.
The great political orator William Jennings Bryan never would have been a Patriots fan.
If they’re not the gold standard in the NFL, they are a gold standard by which all other NFL franchises are measured when it comes to sustained success in a league determined to deter it — 10 straight seasons of 10 wins or more, 12 consecutive winning seasons, and seven conference title games.
Four of the other six teams that enter Week 4 with 3-0 records didn’t make the playoffs last year. Every year since 1990, when a 12-team playoff format was adopted, the NFL has seen four teams make the playoffs that did not the year before. The league worships at the altar of parity.
Maybe, we’re just too close to the Patriots to see them as they’re perceived by the rest of the country and the rest of the league, as a perpetual paragon of winning. Sure, ESPN The Magazine picked the Patriots to go 9-7 and finish second to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East, but that was like a Lady Gaga outfit — designed for pure shock factor.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said it best after the Patriots laid a 23-3 shellacking on his team last Sunday, “As long as Tom [Brady] is under center and that coach is over there, they are still the Patriots.”
That means they’re still the model franchise in the NFL, whether the local perception is that the 2013 edition is the real deal or a schedule-maker’s mirage, whether you would rather have Wes Welker or Danny Amendola at wide receiver (I’ll take Wes), or whether Rob Gronkowski returns skinny or jacked.
Ryan, who played his college ball at Boston College, and Dimitroff certainly have an appreciation for the Patriots’ brand of football.
But saying they were molded in the image of Brady and Bill Belichick is not fair to them or to Falcons coach Mike Smith.
They’ve borrowed pieces of the Patriots’ blueprint, but also put their own design on winning, particularly Dimitroff, who made a daring draft-day deal to snag wide receiver Julio Jones in 2011.
Dimitroff sent five draft picks, including his 2011 first- and second-round picks and a 2012 first-rounder, to Cleveland to move up from No. 27 to No. 6 to take Jones, who leads the NFL in receiving yards (373) and is tied with Julian Edelman for the lead in receptions (27).
Belichick would tweet his game plan before he gave up that much draft currency for one player.
The Falcons have posted a winning record every season since Dimitroff became their general manager in 2008. Atlanta is 57-26 in the regular season since 2008. The only team with a better record is the Patriots (63-20).
The knock is that when the lights get brighter and the games get bigger, “Matty Ice” becomes “Matty Lite” and the Falcons become prey instead of predators.
The Falcons finally got the playoff hex out of Hotlanta by scoring a 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks last year, but they came up just short against San Francisco in the NFC title game. Their playoff record since 2008 is 1-4.
So, the Falcons enter with as much motivation to prove doubters and detractors wrong as the Patriots do, all of which should make for an entertaining game.
There is no question that a win over the Falcons would go a long way to quelling many of the concerns and critiques of the Patriots, who like Tiger Woods always seem to be measured against their own prior success.
The game will certainly offer a stiffer level of competition than the Patriots have faced thus far and a barometer for their progress.
The definition of elite quarterback in the NFL is a bit nebulous, but there is no question Ryan is among the upper-echelon passers in the league. He tied Peyton Manning for the NFL lead in completion percentage last season at 68.6 and threw 32 touchdowns passes.
At BC, Ryan had to fit some of this throws through a thimble. Give him talents like Jones and Roddy White at wide receiver and Tony Gonzalez, the Mariano Rivera of NFL tight ends, and he’s capable of Brady-esque passing pyrotechnics.
The Patriots have allowed 34 points all season — only 27 on defense since one touchdown was a return of a Stevan Ridley fumble. It’s possible Atlanta could top that in one game, if the Patriots’ defense has been lulled into a false sense of dominance.
Yes, it’s a measuring-stick game for the Patriots, but make no mistake, the Patriots remain the NFL’s ultimate measuring stick.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.