Joe Flacco is on the verge of becoming an elite quarterback in only his third season. As a deadly accurate thrower with exceptional arm strength, he excels at pushing the ball down the field off play-action. With the Falcons sure to focus on stopping the Ravens' run game, Flacco will have chances to unleash the deep ball.
Ray Rice is the Ravens' most dynamic player, and Cam Cameron does a terrific job of getting him the ball in space as a runner-receiver. Willis McGahee has scored five TDs as the team's change-of-pace back. Add Le'Ron McClain to the mix, and the Ravens have a powerful three-headed monster capable of wearing down the Falcons' front seven.
Anquan Boldin has been as good as advertised since coming over from the Arizona Cardinals. He has thrived as the Ravens' No. 1 receiver and opened up the field for Derrick Mason on the opposite side. Todd Heap is still a viable weapon over the middle of the field, and the Falcons' two-deep zone could make him Flacco's top target this week.
The Ravens' offense has started to finds its rhythm behind an offensive line that might be the league's best. Michael Oher is a budding all star at left tackle, and he is joined by a stellar interior trio (Matt Birk, Ben Grubbs and Chris Chester) that is a dominant force at the point of attack. Facing an undersized Falcons' defensive line, the Ravens could opt to pound the ball relentlessly between the tackles.
Haloti Ngata is a dominating force at defensive end with the ability to routinely defeat double teams at the point of attack. Coordinator Greg Mattison will creatively move him around to take advantage of favorable matches along the line. Although Kelly Gregg and Cory Redding play vital roles as grunt-like workers in the middle, it is the sensational play of Ngata that sets the tone for the Ravens' defense.
Ray Lewis is still thriving as the centerpiece of the defense despite playing in his 15th season. He wreaks havoc while roaming as a sideline-to-sideline defender, and his teeth-rattling shots put fear in the hearts of runners and receivers in the middle. Terrell Suggs is still a whirlwind off the corner, and the Falcons must account for him in their protection schemes.
Ed Reed has immediately raised the level of play in the back end since returning to the lineup two weeks ago. He has picked off three passes in the last two games and keyed the defense's sudden rash of takeaways. Though his presence has eliminated some of the unit's mental mistakes, the suspect play of Fabian Washington, Chris Carr and Lardarius Webb remains a glaring weakness for the Ravens.
The presence of a head coach with an extensive special teams background has made shining in the kicking game an emphasis for the Ravens. Although they have been solid on the coverage units, Tom Zbikowski hasn't provided much of an impact as a punt returner. Billy Cundiff has been a dependable weapon on all kicks inside the 50-yard range.
John Harbaugh has guided the Ravens into the postseason in his first two years on the job, but his current squad might be the best unit that he has coached. They are balanced and explosive on offense, but still remain a team that is built on their menacing defense. With Harbaugh effectively pushing the right buttons to keep the Ravens motivated, they are a tough challenge for any opponent.
The Ravens enter the game regarded as the best team in the league behind an improving offense under the direction of Flacco. He has been sensational in their last five games with 11 touchdowns and only one interception during that span. With the defense slowly getting back to health with the return of Ed Reed, the Ravens have the potential to hammer the Falcons on both sides of the ball.
Matt Ryan has been a sensational performer in the confines of the Georgia Dome (17-1 career record at home), but he faces a tough challenge against an aggressive defense. While eluding a fierce pass rush and avoiding Ed Reed is critical to the Falcons' success, Ryan could have success working vs. corners Fabian Washington and Chris Carr on the outside.
Michael Turner is the driving force of the Falcons' offense. He pounds the ball relentlessly between the tackles, but also has the speed and quickness to break off big runs on the perimeter. Jason Snelling is a big, physical third-down back capable of making big plays when given opportunities as a runner or receiver. Atlanta must establish the running game to set up big-play opportunities against the Ravens through the air.
Roddy White has quietly developed into one of the league's top receivers, but a nagging knee injury threatens to slow him down. If he is healthy enough to play, he could have a field day against the Ravens' suspect secondary. Tony Gonzalez is Ryan's security blanket between the hashes. He could see plenty of action with Ryan forced to get rid of the ball quickly vs. the blitz.
The Falcons' offensive line has played exceptionally well during the first half of the season. They have paved huge holes for Michael Turner while keeping Matt Ryan clean in the pocket (only 13 sacks allowed). However, they struggled in their previous match-ups against blitz-heavy squads (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), so the Ravens' exotic schemes and talented personnel could pose a serious problem.
John Abraham is the marquee player on the Falcons' front four that is built to rush the passer. He is an exceptional speed rusher with the burst to overwhelm blockers off the edge. However, he must get help from Jonathan Babineaux and Kroy Biermann to corral the Ravens' physical running game to have any shot at getting after Flacco in the pocket.
The Falcons' linebackers excel at chasing down ball carriers in the team's Tampa-2 scheme. Mike Peterson, Curtis Lofton and Stephen Nicholas are quick in pursuit, and their ability to swarm to the ball makes the Falcons' defense stout against the run. Facing a talented runner in Rice, the trio must be disciplined with their gap fits.
The Falcons' secondary is devoid of big names, but they get key contributions from Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson on the corner. Both are ideal fits in the team's zone-heavy scheme, and they are capable of making plays on errant throws in their area. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are nosy run defenders, so the Ravens' heavy use of play-action has the potential to lead to big plays against the unit.
The Falcons could win the field-position battle on the strength of their return game. Eric Weems has flashed big-play potential as punt and kick returner, and a long run in either phase could jolt the Falcons' offense. Matt Bryant has been solid as a kicker, but Michael Koenen needs to be more consistent on his punts.
Mike Smith's quiet demeanor keeps him out of the spotlight, but he is emerging as one of the league's top coaches. He has created a championship standard in Atlanta that has raised the level of play from the Falcons. Although their schemes on both sides of the ball are simple, their solid execution reveals a well-coached team that is disciplined and accountable in all areas.
The Falcons are coming off a big win over the Buccaneers, but they face their stiffest test to date with this matchup. Working in their favor is the fact that they get to square off with them in the Georgia Dome, which has been an outstanding advantage for the Falcons in the Mike Smith era. With Deion Sanders headed into the Falcons' Ring of Honor, the energy in the Dome could be enough to propel the Falcons to a big win.