Red-zone play crucial, Bills’ secondary gelling, 4 more things to know

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — For the second straight week, Atlanta’s dynamic offense will be tested by one of the NFL’s top defenses. The Bills (2-1) currently have the league’s No. 1 scoring defense, and they are among the leaders in nearly every major defensive statistical category.

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The Falcons (3-0) moved the ball well against a Lions defense that was regarded as a strong unit, but three turnovers helped Detroit stay in the game until the very end. Against this staunch Buffalo defense, Atlanta will need to execute at a high level and limit its mistakes.

That execution will become even more important for the Falcons near the goal line, and their performance inside of the 20-yard line may decide the outcome on Sunday afternoon.

KEY MATCHUP: Falcons’ red zone offense vs. Bills’ red zone defense

Contrary to what some may think, the Falcons’ offense has started out at a similar pace to their historic 2016 season. Last year, Atlanta averaged 34.7 points and 448 yards per game over the first three weeks. Through three games this season, the Falcons average 29 points and 388 yards per contest.

A couple of factors skew those numbers slightly. The Falcons have played some tougher defenses to start the season this year, and the improvement of their own defense has meant fewer shootouts. Without three interceptions against the Lions, including one inside of the 20-yard line, Atlanta’s point total this season would be even higher.

The Falcons’ performance in the red zone is one aspect that has carried over from last year. Converting 60 percent of its red zone trips into touchdowns, Atlanta is currently tied for 14th in that category among NFL teams. In 2016, the Falcons scored a touchdown on 61.9 percent of their red zone trips, which was ninth in the league.

Against Green Bay, the Falcons were a perfect three-for-three in the red zone and showed just how effective they can be when near the goal line. Atlanta continues to emphasize that aspect of the offense, and quarterback Matt Ryan explained why it is such a big focus for the team.

“I think it’s always a critical area,” Ryan said this week. “When you get your opportunities down there as an offense, you’ve got to come away with touchdowns. That’s something we’ve done a pretty good job of throughout the first three weeks of the season, but, for sure, that will be important on Sunday. If and when we get our (opportunities) down there, we’ve got to take advantage of…

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