FOXBORO -- The Patriots have been talking all week about how good Matt Ryan is. Friday, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly took the compliment further.
"Whoever's the best, he's up there with them -- Top 5, Top 10. He's a great quarterback. The whole offense runs through him. When the game's on the line, he's going to have the ball in his hands. So we've got to get him off his spot, try to get him to make some hurried decisions."
Atlanta's offense is, unquestionably, a departure from New England's first three opponents of the Bills, Jets, and Buccaneers. Not like Kelly needs motivation. Whether facing a rookie or a "great" quarterback, all he sees is red.
"All the glory comes from sacking the quarterback. If you can't get up for a chance to play a quarterback who can throw the ball, you're pretty much in the wrong league."
He should see some opportunities this Sunday.
There are weaknesses to the Falcons' offensive line. Ryan didn't see a ton of pass rush from Miami last week and didn't take one sack, but the banged-up Dolphins did get five hits and multiple pressures on him. With starting left tackle Sam Baker hobbled by foot and knee injuries, Lamar Holmes had to slide over from the right side. The interception Ryan threw against Miami, his last play in the 27-23 loss, wasn't a bad decision so much as bad protection from Holmes; rookie D-lineman Dion Jordan was able to get to the quarterback and hit his arm to send the pass off course.
Kelly acknowledged Atlanta's offensive line has looked leaky over the last few weeks. But the 10-year NFL veteran knows better than to count on a poor performance from anyone.
"It really doesn't matter in this league. You go out there and undervalue your opponent and he's going to go out and have a good game against you. You don't worry about who they have on the offensive line, you just deal with it."
There is one thing Kelly's expecting from Atlanta: An air assault.
"You know they want to throw the ball, so to me, I'm playing the pass. These guys want to throw the ball, they want to make big plays. They want to get the ball into Julio and Roddy White's hands. So I'm going to put all my eggs in that basket, thinking they're going to throw the ball."
It's no secret Ryan's favorite target is Julio Jones. The 24-year old leads the league in receiving yards (373), is ranked second in yards after the catch (157), and is tied for fifth in first downs (15). Even if the Patriots keep a corner like Aqib Talib fixed to Jones' tail, Roddy White is another dangerous option in the passing game.
Rob Ninkovich agrees Ryan will want to air it out at home on Sunday. He, and the rest of the Patriots defense, is gearing up for a long night.
"I just [have to] fill up the gas tank because it's going to be a night where you have to have a lot of high-energy rushes. They're kind of going with an up-tempo offense, so the D-line has got to do a good job of doing our assignment."
And, according to Kelly, Ryan will go full-throttle from the first snap.
"They're a very fast starting team. They want to get up on you and play from ahead with their crowd noise, let their defense pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. Any time we can, we'll get them off the field, get a couple three-and-outs to start the game, try to get them out of their rhythm."