Browns at Falcons
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons are thrilled to be playing at home. Josh Gordon is excited to be playing anywhere.
Somehow tied for first in their division despite a losing record, the Falcons will be back at the Georgia Dome for the first time in six weeks when they host the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Gordon, who led the league with 1,646 yards receiving a year ago, is making his season debut for the Browns after serving a 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy.
“I’m very ready,” Gordon said. “I had a long time to get ready for it.”
The Falcons (4-6) climbed to the top of the anemic NFC South with two straight wins.
They have not played a true home game since losing to the Chicago Bears on Oct. 12, and this will be only their second appearance at the Georgia Dome in a span of 66 days.
“I’ve got to make sure I know how to get there,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith quipped.
The schedule turns in the Falcons’ favor the rest of the way, with four of their last six games at home.
“We’re taking it week by week,” running back Steven Jackson said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”
The NFC South is a laughingstock around the rest of the league, but the Falcons are making no apologies for being in position to make the playoffs despite being 0-6 against teams outside their division.
Compare that with the Browns (6-4), who have a better record but two teams ahead of them in the tightly bunched AFC North.
If the playoffs began today, the Falcons would be in.
The Browns would be out.
“It doesn’t matter,” Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We’ve got everything in front of us. We’re not worried about what people say.”
Gordon may be rusty, but he figures to play a huge role right away. Just look at what happened last season, when he returned from a two-game suspension and was targeted 19 times by quarterback Brian Hoyer.
In practice this week, Hoyer was locked in on his favorite receiver.
“I just wanted to make sure I was in the best shape of my life and try to come out without missing a beat,” Gordon said.
First-year coach Mike Pettine cautioned that the Browns have to be sure they don’t give Gordon more than he can handle.
He’s familiar with some of the terminology in the playbook, but recognizing defenses could take some time.
“The trap to fall into is, ‘Hey, he’s back, let’s just go ahead and throw him out there for a bunch of plays,’” Pettine said.
“There is certainly danger inherent in doing that. We have to be smart with how we do it.”
The Browns are trying to win two straight road games for the first time since 2008.
They have to beat a team that is eager to make a good impression on the home folks.
“I can’t wait to get to the Dome on Sunday,” Ryan said. “I’m sure it will be rockin’.”
Here are some other things to watch for when the Falcons take on the Browns:
BROWNS BACKS: Cleveland released disgruntled running back Ben Tate, who was unhappy with his role after carrying only two times in a 23-7 loss to Houston. The Browns are now going with a pair of rookie backs, including one who is familiar to fans in this part of the country.
Isaiah Crowell started his college career at Georgia, but was kicked off the team. He has gained 358 yards and leads Cleveland with five rushing touchdowns. The Browns will also use Terrance West, who has 408 yards rushing.
AGELESS BRYANT: One of Atlanta’s biggest weapons is 39-year-old kicker Matt Bryant, who is 16 of 18 on field goal attempts, his only misses from 57 and 59 yards.
He’s made four field goals each of the past two weeks, including a game-winner against Carolina.
RUN, FALCONS, RUN: The Falcons haven’t had much success on the ground, ranking 24th in the league at 96.1 yards per game. This should be a chance to improve those numbers.
Cleveland is 30th overall against the run, surrendering an average of more than 142 yards.
INJURY WOES: The Browns’ defense took a couple of big hits with injuries to starting linebackers Karlos Dansby (knee) and Jabaal Sheard (foot).
Dansby could be out up to a month, depriving Cleveland of its leading tackler.
The Browns will get no sympathy from the Falcons, who have lost five offensive linemen, defensive leader Sean Weatherspoon, and special teams ace Antone Smith to season-ending injuries.
SPREADING IT AROUND: Even though Julio Jones and Roddy White draw much of the attention, Ryan has thrown touchdown passes to nine players.