ATLANTA - How big is tonight's game (8 o'clock, TNT) against the Philadelphia Eagles at the Georgia Dome? The Atlanta Falcons' season may ride on the outcome.
The Falcons opened the season losing two games they believe they should have won. If they fall to the 2-1 Eagles, they'll be 0-3 heading into the most difficult stretch on the schedule.
After tonight, the Falcons play San Francisco, Detroit and Dallas on the road in a four-week stretch, with vastly improved Houston at home Oct. 13.
"You don't want to make the game bigger than it is, but we don't have a lot of room for error right now," said linebacker Jessie Tuggle, who has been featured in TNT promos of the matchup. "But I really don't think anybody's tight. We've have some football teams that weren't very good. This isn't one of them. We're anxious to show people that."
The Falcons come off a bye week, while the Eagles had an impressive 24-17 victory over Detroit last week. Atlanta is 6-1 in games immediately after a bye, losing only to St. Louis last year on the road (21-19).
The time off has helped the Falcons overcome some early injuries, although starting left cornerback Anthony Phillips is still hobbled with two sprained ankles and may not play.
Guard Mike Zandofsky, who sat out the losses to Carolina and Minnesota, returns to his starting right guard spot. Running back Craig Heyward is back after missing the Vikings game with a sprained shoulder and will share the fullback job with Jamal Anderson, who has 181 yards rushing.
"I don't know if one time is better than another (for the bye)," Falcons coach June Jones said. "We seem to have a lot of injuries, so it's probably good for us. But, probably, you'd prefer to have one later in the year."
For the Falcons, the game comes down to getting their offense untracked and preventing big pass plays. After averaging 20.1 points per game last year, Atlanta has tallied only 23 points in two games, and only two touchdowns.
Quarterback Jeff George (40 of 76, 481 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) isn't completely at fault, but he has done little to rescue the team from its funk. The line has given up 10 sacks and, of the four starting receivers, only Terance Mathis has made big plays.
"We're struggling, sure," George said. "But (three) weeks ago, it looked like we were ready to roll, didn't it? What we all need to do is start making some plays and get this deal turned around. It's going to take all of us to get through this."
Defensively, Atlanta's front seven have played well enough. But the secondary has again been woeful. Cornerbacks Phillips and Darnell Walker have surrendered several long completions, and safeties Devin Bush and Patrick Bates haven't played with any real sense of purpose.
Even the normally dependable Morten Andersen has missed two field goals.
Philadelphia features quarterback Rodney Peete and former 49ers running back Ricky Watters, who was the NFC Offensive Player of the Week last week after rushing for 153 yards against Detroit. Of particular concern to the Falcons is that the Eagles also have a trio of physical receivers in Chris T. Jones, Irving Fryar and Mark Seay.
Peete threw three interceptions in a 39-13 loss to Green Bay two week ago, but came back with an excellent performance against Detroit in which he hit on 25 of 30 passes.
The Eagles defense features a speedy pass rusher in former Boston College star Mike Mamula at right end and solid starting cornerbacks in Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. Rookie Brian Dawkins is the starting free safety.
"Any time you go against a team coming off a bye, it's an advantage to them," Eagles coach Ray Rhodes said. "Their players are well rested. They've had a lot of time to study our team."
The Atlanta Falcons have started 0-2 10 times in team history. Only once have they rebounded to finish with a winning record. Here's a look at how the team has finished when losing its first two:
Year Final record Comment 1993 6-10 Glanville's last year 1991 10-6 In playoffs after 2-3 start 1988 5-11 Lost 7 of first 8 1985 4-12 Started 0-6 1976 4-10 Marion Campbell's first firing. 1975 4-10 Several close losses 1974 3-11 8-game losing streak 1968 2-12 Norm Van Brocklin fired 1967 1-12-1 Beat Minnesota 1966 3-11 Inaugural season