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Is it too early for a must-win situation?

Atonement is on the minds of the Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons as they meet today at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Bills were handled on both sides of the ball in their 19-3 loss at Tampa Bay last week. The Falcons couldn't overcome a 21-0 first-half deficit and dropped a 21-18 decision at Seattle.

The Bills and Falcons have high hopes for this season. Today's winner will have reason to feel good about itself, while the loser will have some soul searching to do.

> Breaking down the Bills

Bills running game: Coach Mike Mularkey called out RB Willis McGahee, an indecisive runner last week. Needs to use size and power to move the pile and gain positive yardage. Bills' offense goes as McGahee goes. . . . Offensive line has huge size advantage on Falcons' small front seven, which yielded 163 rushing yards (144 by Shawn Alexander) at Seattle last week. Look for Bills to use more power formations with FB Daimon Shelton and two tight ends. . . . But Bills must hold blocks because Falcons' speed on defense is similar to Buccaneers'. If Falcons' D-line disrupts Bills' blocking schemes, swift LBs Keith Brooking, Edgerton Hartwell and Demorrio Williams can fly to ball and corral McGahee.

Bills passing game: QB J.P. Losman showed his inexperience last week, making bad throws and poor reads. Tampa Bay should have intercepted him at least three times. Why? Because the Bucs read Losman's eyes, which allowed them to jump routes to his intended receiver. Losman must avoid locking on to primary target and be more accurate with passes. . . . Falcons DEs Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith and DTs Rod Coleman and Chad Lavalais have speed to shrink pocket and bother Losman. . . . Kerney will test mobility of RT Mike Williams, who has gimpy ankle. . . . Falcons will also blitz to challenge Losman's poise under pressure. . . . Falcons CBs DeAngelo Hall and Jason Webster are good, but top backup Kevin Mathis is on injured reserve and new nickel back Allen Rossum is nursing a hamstring injury. Bills will use four-receiver formations to test Falcons' depth.

Special teams: KR Terrence McGee, who almost broke a couple of returns last week, and PR Nate Clements will battle Falcons' excellent coverage. . . . P Brian Moorman and sound coverage will play role in field position battle. . . . K Rian Lindell has been only consistent source of offense.

> Breaking down the Falcons

Falcons running game: Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett are key components in NFL's fourth-ranked rushing attack. Dunn has excellent speed and elusiveness, while Duckett combines size and power. . . . Their roles may increase with QB Michael Vick questionable with pulled hamstring. . . . Falcons' zone-block scheme requires linemen to get defenders moving laterally so the ball carrier can find a cutback lane. . . . Bills DTs Sam Adams and Ron Edwards need to bounce back from last week's poor performance. They must hold their ground or shoot gaps to short-circuit Falcons' inside runs. . . . Bills DEs Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay can't get sealed inside, which would spring Dunn and Duckett on runs outside tackles. . . . LBs Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey must get off blocks and seal off run lanes. . . . SS Lawyer Milloy may have to play with soft cast on injured right thumb, which could affect tackling ability.

Falcons passing game: Whether it's Vick or backup Matt Schaub, Falcons' plan will call for more maximum-protection schemes with three-step drops or shotgun formation in an attempt to neutralize Bills' blitzes. . . . Bills would welcome a wounded Vick because they can bring more pressure without having to worry about playing contain. . . . If Vick isn't limited, Schobel and Kelsay must be under control so Vick can't escape outside pocket. . . . Pro Bowl TE Alge Crumpler is always Falcons' first receiving option. Bills will likely bracket him with a linebacker and safety, so Falcons' big but inconsistent wide receivers must win one-on-one match ups.

Special teams: Falcons' return game would be dangerous if a healthy Rossum was handling kickoffs. . . . Hall has game-breaking speed on punt returns. . . . K Todd Peterson is solid veteran. . . . Rookie P Michael Koenen averages 44.9 yards per punt.

> Prediction

Last week's loss at Tampa Bay has to light a fire under Bills, who know a second straight loss would rekindle memories of last year's slow start. Vick, assuming he's healthy, will make plays, but Bills will make more. Bills 20, Falcons 17.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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