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Falcons vs. Browns preview


When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta TV: CBS

The Atlanta Falcons play at home for the first time since Oct. 12 and bring with them a two-game winning streak. But they've dropped their only two games against AFC North teams: road losses at Cincinnati and Baltimore. Now they'll face the Cleveland Browns, who were good enough to beat the Bengals on the road but also lost to lowly Jacksonville.

The 4-6 Falcons are tied for first place in the NFC South; the 6-4 Browns are tied for last place in the competitive AFC North. ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon break down the matchup:

McClure: There's been so much talk about Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon coming off suspension. Over here, Falcons coach Mike Smith said he expects a "full dose" of Gordon on Sunday. Do you expect the same?

McManamon: I think anyone would be crazy not to. Who in the world doesn't give a full dose of Gordon if he's ready to play? The guy has superstar ability and superstar talent. He opens up the field, draws double-teams, has excellent hands and runs like a gazelle. To think you hold a guy back who brings that to the field is borderline lunacy. The only thing Gordon might lack is being in game shape, but last season he stepped in after a two-game suspension and had a huge game. The Browns are tempering expectations, and they might be wise to do so. I believe nothing will hold Gordon back. The Falcons are wise to plan for him to be full-go.

I don't think I've heard any apologies from Atlanta, but last I looked a 4-6 team is in first place. How do the Falcons feel about that?

McClure: Relieved, considering they nearly blew a double-digit lead and a chance to move into first place before squeaking out a 19-17 victory at Carolina on Sunday. I will say this: Despite the doom and gloom from the outside, the Falcons remained optimistic, even after a five-game losing streak. You didn't see players hanging their heads or talking about not having much hope, as I believe Brandon Marshall said about the Bears' season recently. Now, the Falcons return home for three of the next four games, so they have a chance to really start building confidence with hopes of securing the NFC South title. As bad as the division has been, the Falcons have a realistic shot at the postseason.

The Browns lost starting linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jabaal Sheard to injury for a significant amount of time. How does that affect the defense, and how will the Browns compensate for those losses?

McManamon: It's tough. Those injuries are in addition to losing defensive end Phil Taylor for the rest of the season a week ago, which cut into the line depth. That's three significant starters on defense, including the captain and leader, Dansby.

This has been an ongoing problem for the Browns in the past 15 seasons. They retool with new coaches and new systems, which means roster turnover, which means little depth. In past years, they've not been able to survive attrition. Whether they can this season remains to be seen. With Dansby out, Chris Kirksey and Craig Robertson will play inside. The talent drops there are significant. Last week, with Dansby out more than half the game, Houston ran for 213 yards. Sheard had played his best football recently, and, with him out, Barkevious Mingo will see his playing time increase. Mingo is playing with a shoulder issue that requires him to wear a harness that doesn't allow him to raise his arm over his shoulder. Compensating for these losses will not be easy.

It's been awhile, but the Browns don't have a lot to show for the trade that gave Atlanta the pick that turned out to be Julio Jones. Do the Falcons look back on that trade as a worthwhile deal?

McClure: That was a no-brainer a few years back, when Jones put up 1,198 receiving yards and scored 10 touchdowns in the Falcons' 13-3 season. General manager Thomas Dimitroff had every reason to pat himself on the back, based on the way Jones performed. But now, some might question the move just because Jones' 2013 season ended prematurely with a foot injury and because he has dropped a few passes this season.

Yes, the Falcons voided themselves of some depth by trading away five draft picks. No one knows for certain which players the Falcons would have selected had they kept those picks. But consider this: Only one player the Browns got in the Jones trade -- Taylor -- remains on the roster. And Taylor is on injured reserve, as you mentioned. I think the Falcons did just fine in landing a game-changing receiver such as Jones. Now they have to just get him the ball more, particularly on deep throws.

I know Brian Hoyer has done some good things this season and has kept the conversation away from Johnny Manziel, but is there any other player who has surprised you by stepping up his game, someone the Falcons should be aware of come Sunday?

McManamon: I'd have to go with the wide receiver group other than Gordon. Without Gordon, I thought that the offense would be a lost cause, that the players' lack of playmaking ability and experience would affect the success. The opposite happened. They played better than anyone expected and were significant contributors to a 6-4 start. Andrew Hawkins stepped into Gordon's spot, Miles Austin was solid and undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel proved to be a real find. Add Gordon and the group gets that much better. And, to their credit, Austin and Hawkins said they expect Gordon to step right in and help. They are eager to have him back -- "We'll make sure he fits in," Hawkins said -- even though their playing time will be cut with Gordon on the field.

Dome teams usually have a large advantage in these kind of games. Is that true of Atlanta? Do the Browns have to worry about a dome-field advantage?

McClure: The Falcons are 2-1 at the Georgia Dome this season and had their highest-scoring outputs there, against Tampa Bay (56 points) and New Orleans (37). Two of the three times this season Matt Ryan has recorded a 100-plus passer rating have been at home. Devin Hester scored his only return touchdown against the Buccaneers at home, and most figured he would be rejuvenated playing inside a dome. And since Mike Smith took over in 2008, the Falcons are 38-14 (.731) at the Georgia Dome, which is the fifth-best home winning percentage over that span behind the Patriots (.887), Ravens (.811), Packers (.783) and Saints (.755).

But the Browns did win the last time they played at the Georgia Dome, 17-13 in 2006, thanks in large part to three Michael Vick turnovers. As long as Ryan and the Falcons avoid miscues, they should feel pretty comfortable at home come Sunday.