Atlanta Falcons (7-2) at St. Louis Rams (4-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Field Turf
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Tim Ryan
PREDICTION: Falcons 28-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons have scored 98 points on their opening possession over their past 41 games, and seek fast starts because they're 22-1 under coach Mike Smith when entering the fourth quarter with a lead. QB Matt Ryan proved against Baltimore that he can open up the passing game when defenses focus on negating RB Michael Turner. But can Rams rookie QB Sam Bradford do the same if RB Steven Jackson is contained? The Falcons have held five of their last seven opponents under 100 rushing yards and will bring a safety toward the line of scrimmage, creating more one-on-one opportunities downfield and daring Bradford to beat them.
FAST FACTS: Ryan has a 99.5 passer rating on artificial turf this season compared to 77.0 on grass. ... The Rams have a four-game home winning streak.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
With all of the star power on the Falcons offense it's easy to overlook running back Jason Snelling.
While Michael Turner, Roddy White, Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez take up the spotlight, Snelling, a former seventh-round pick out of Virginia, continues to make plays.
Snelling stepped into the backup running back role after Jerious Norwood was lost for the season and has not looked back. He has developed into a threat in the passing game and has taken over as the third-down back. Snelling is third on the team in receptions with 28 and is the second-leading rusher with 291 yards. He has run for two touchdowns and caught two touchdown passes.
Snelling caught a career-high six passes for 56 yards against Baltimore.
"That's always been a role of mine, and all the running backs," Snelling said. "We're put in situations where they know they can get the ball in our hands and we'll be able to make plays. I had some opportunities against Baltimore, and I was fortunate enough to be able to make plays."
In a 41-7 win over Arizona, Snelling filled in for Turner, who was injured, and had 24 carries for 129 yards and two touchdowns, along with five catches for 57 yards and a score. He earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
"He does catch the ball very well," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "He does a very good job of understanding running routes and reading coverages. He knows where the soft spots are in zones. When he gets man coverage, he has enough wiggle where he can get away from the coverage."
At Virginia, Snelling caught only 29 passes over his career.
"It's something I've worked on a year-to-year basis, knowing that's an expectation for a running back as an Atlanta Falcon player," Snelling said. "It makes me more valuable as a player, and it helps our team win."
Quarterback Matt Ryan has gained some trust in Snelling's hands.
"Jason has been really good for us," Ryan said. "He's been good for a long time. He is getting onto the field more now than he has in the past. I think his past success has allowed us to incorporate him in the game plans more."
St. Louis Rams
The benching of cornerback Bradley Fletcher on Sunday against San Francisco remains something of a mystery.
Kevin Dockery started in Fletcher's place against the 49ers and was burned early on two big pass plays. Fletcher then took his place in the base defense.
As for the benching, references were made to Fletcher having some plays he'd like back in previous game and to Dockery having played well against Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith on Oct. 31. There were also reports coaches weren't pleased with some sloppy practice habits Fletcher had developed.
While Fletcher battled back from a serious knee injury suffered early last season when he was a rookie, health was not said to be a factor. However, defensive coordinator Ken Flajole talked about Fletcher's health Thursday.
"I think part of it is just there's a little bit of a learning curve for Fletch," Flajole said. "I think the one thing that happens, anytime you've had major knee surgery like he has, people that seem to know that thing feel like that's a two-year injury. He had dramatic knee surgery, so part of it is getting his knee back into shape. I think a little bit of it will be a health issue as much as anything else, him just getting back to where that knee is back to a hundred percent. I'm not sure that he's hitting on all eight cylinders right now."
Asked if Fletcher might have hit a plateau, Flajole said, "It could happen. The thing we've all got to remember is he's a (rookie) when it comes to playing. He got hurt early in the year last year, so he missed a good portion of the season. Part of the learning curve ... he didn't get all the repetitions and that natural learning progression that you get if you had played all 16 games.
"So now he's getting it, and then all the sudden now your body has got to get used to playing a 16-game schedule. So at some point in time, your body kind of reacts a little bit and says, 'Well, we've got a few more to go, so hang in there.' It's not like the college kids that come out that first year. They get to about game 11 or 12 and all of the sudden they think they'd be playing in a bowl game and they've got a good stretch of games ahead of them."
The Rams allowed numerous big pass plays Sunday, and this week they face a Falcons' offense spearheaded by wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Asked what went wrong, Flajole acknowledged there were a number of issues. He said, "And I put part of it on myself. I second-guessed myself a little bit. Should I have pressured on one of those downs when they were (moving toward) their go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter? So I can put a little bit on me as well. There's things maybe I could have done better.
"When it comes down to it, either I've got to execute better and when we make a call, they've got to execute the call better. But between us and them and all of us, we're going to get it right.
"We were certainly disappointed. We were disappointed in what happened and transpired in the game and we were disappointed about how the game ended. We certainly felt from our standpoint that we could have taken the game under control, and we didn't do it. Our guys understand that. They've got a lot of pride, and I expect them to rebound this week."
-- QB Matt Ryan is tied for the league lead with four touchdowns in the fourth quarter when his team is either leading or trailing by seven points. Additionally, Ryan has completed 65.2 percent of his passes and posted a passer rating of 95.0 in those clutch situations.
-- WR Roddy White has caught 231 passes over the last three seasons, which ranks sixth in the NFL and second in the NFC. Among receivers with 200 or more receptions during that time, White ranks second in the NFL with a 14.4 yards-per-catch average and 23 touchdowns.
-- TE Tony Gonzalez has 85 career touchdowns and needs just two TD catches to tie Andre Reed (87) for 11th in league history. Gonzalez has his sights set on moving up on the NFL's all-time receiving yardage list as he sits just 78 yards shy of tying Jimmy Smith for 15th in NFL history. With a 16-yard catch in the second quarter of Atlanta's 27-21 win over Tampa Bay, Gonzalez passed Charlie Joiner for 16th place.
-- RB Michael Turner has hit his stride recently, rushing for over 100 yards in three of the last five games, including back-to-back games with 121 yards on 23 carries and two touchdowns in a Week 7 win over Cincinnati, and 107 yards on 24 carries and two scores against the Bucs in a 27-21 win in Week 9. Turner's 733 yards rank fourth in the NFC. He is also averaging 81.4 yards per game.
-- K Matt Bryant recorded his 700th career point in Atlanta's 26-21 against Baltimore. Bryant hit a 28-yard field goal and a season-long 51-yard field goal while adding three extra points. In 2010, Bryant has totaled 77 points on 18 made field goals and 23 PATs and is on pace for a career-best 136 total points.
St. Louis Rams
-- LT Rodger Saffold participated fully in practice Thursday after being limited Wednesday by an ankle injury suffered Sunday against San Francisco. Saffold had extensive treatment over the last few days. He said, "I want to play. So I really took rehab kind of to the next level. I was here all day for a few days. With the trainers' help, and especially doing what I needed to do at home, it's gotten me to where I am right now."
-- WR Danario Alexander was listed as limited on the injury report for the second straight day, but Alexander got practice time with the first unit. "I think he's doing a pretty good job right now," coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
-- DT Fred Robbins was added to the injury report Thursday with a back injury. Coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "It's high in his back. He pulled something yesterday. It was a little bit sore this morning, so he got a limited number of reps."
-- S James Butler, a limited participant in practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury, fully participated Thursday.
-- FB/LB Brit Miller, who suffered a concussion against San Francisco Sunday, was limited Wednesday and was cleared Thursday for full participation in practice.