The Falcons suddenly have one of the better passing attacks in the NFL.

The pieces have always been there for it to be great. Matt Ryan is a quality quarterback, and Julio Jones is one of the better wide receivers in the NFL. The latter point has been blatantly obvious this season, as Jones has corralled 34 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns.

But perhaps the biggest difference between this season, in which the Falcons are averaging 305 passing yards per game, and last year’s offense, which averaged a respectable 284, is the protection up front.

Too often last year Ryan was under siege, dipping and ducking defensive linemen and linebackers to get passes off. He was sacked 31 times, which isn’t an outrageous figure, but it’s higher than any team would like. This season, he’s been sacked only four times.

One of the biggest reasons for that is because second-year left tackle Jake Matthews reportedly hasn’t allowed a sack or quarterback hit through three games. He’s surrendered only one pressure.

The integrity of that offensive line will be put to the test this week against the Houston Texans, who feature the league’s most fearsome pass rusher in J.J. Watt. His sidekick, Jadeveon Clowney, has gotten off to a slow start this season but is starting to pick up the pace. He has eight hurries through three games.

For the Falcons, who are 3-0, to maintain their lead on the division, Matthews and company are going to have to hold strong and give Ryan enough time to get his passes off. If not, then there’s a chance the Saints could pick up a game on the Falcons by defeating the Dallas Cowboys.

With a legitimate offensive line finally giving Ryan time to throw, that task will be harder than it was in recent years.

Nick Underhill

NICK’S PICKS: Underhill’s top five teams (this week)

1. PATRIOTS (3-0)

The Pats look like a juggernaut again, and they’re playing like they’re fueled by hate. Good thing they’re on a bye week. Maybe they’ll calm down during the layoff, but it seems doubtful.

2. PACKERS (3-0)

There was some controversy last week when a stats-based website gave Aaron Rodgers a pedestrian grade against the Chiefs. No controversy here. He’s the best in the league.

3. CARDINALS (3-0)

No more doubt. This team looks legit. The defense is as good as it gets, and Carson Palmer is leading a potent offense. It might be time to call the Cardinals the favorite in the West.

4. BRONCOS (3-0)

What Peyton Manning is doing is incredible. His lack of arm strength should be an issue, but his ability to anticipate makes up for it. It’s questionable if anyone else could do what he’s doing.

5. BENGALS (3-0)

They keep rolling on. Could this team finally be figuring out how to win with their talent? As unfair as it may be, it’s hard to take this team seriously until they prove they can win in January.

THIS WEEK’S PICKS

JETS (2-1) VS. DOLPHINS (1-2) AT LONDON

WHEN: 8:30 a.m. Sunday

LINE: JETS BY 11/2

BRIEFLY: JETS COACH TODD BOWLES WAS INTERIM HEAD COACH FOR DOLPHINS FOR LAST THREE GAMES OF 2011. HIS MIAMI TEAM BEAT JETS IN SEASON FINALE. ... JETS HAVE ALLOWED LEAGUE-LOW 41 POINTS. ... DOLPHINS HAVE BEEN OUTSCORED 27-3 IN FIRST QUARTER AND OUTGAINED ON GROUND 435-218, WORST IN NFL.

NICK’S PICK: JETS 28, DOLPHINS 21

PANTHERS (3-0) AT BUCS (1-2)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: PANTHERS BY 3

BRIEFLY: NFC SOUTH RIVALS ALTERNATED SWEEPING SEASON SERIES FROM 2009-13 BEFORE PANTHERS WON BOTH MEETINGS AGAIN LAST YEAR FOR FIRST FOUR-GAME WINNING STREAK IN RIVALRY BY EITHER TEAM SINCE CAROLINA WON FIVE STRAIGHT (2003-05). ... QBS CAM NEWTON AND JAMEIS WINSTON ARE HEISMAN TROPHY WINNERS WHO WON NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS IN COLLEGE AND WERE SELECTED NO. 1 OVERALL IN NFL DRAFT. ... NEWTON HAS WON FOUR OF SIX STARTS VS. BUCS, THROWING FOR 1,414 YARDS, 10 TOUCHDOWNS AND FOUR INTERCEPTIONS.

NICK’S PICK: PANTHERS 24, BUCCANEERS 17

CHIEFS (1-2) AT BENGALS (3-0)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: BENGALS BY 31/2

BRIEFLY: CINCINNATI HAS WON LAST THREE GAMES IN SERIES. ... CHIEFS HAVEN’T STARTED 1-3 SINCE 2012. ... ANDY REID’S ONLY COACHING TIE IN THE NFL CAME AT PAUL BROWN STADIUM IN 2008, WHEN HIS EAGLES TIED BENGALS 13-13. ... RB JAMAAL CHARLES’ CAREER-HIGH THREE TDS RUSHING AGAINST PACKERS MOVED HIM INTO THIRD PLACE ON CHIEFS CAREER LIST. ... QB ANDY DALTON’S 121 PASSER RATING RANKS SECOND IN NFL TO AARON RODGERS (135.4).

NICK’S PICK: BENGALS 21, CHIEFS 17

JAGUARS (1-2) AT COLTS (1-2)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: OFF

BRIEFLY: JAGUARS HAVE LOST FIVE STRAIGHT IN SERIES SINCE DEFEATING INDY 22-17 VICTORY IN ANDREW LUCK’S FIRST DIVISIONAL GAME THREE YEARS AGO. ... INDY K ADAM VINATIERI NEEDS ONE FIELD GOAL TO PASS JOHN CARNEY FOR FOURTH ON NFL’S CAREER LIST, TWO POINTS TO BREAK MIKE VANDERJAGT’S FRANCHISE SCORING RECORD (995), AND SIX POINTS TO BECOME FIRST NFL PLAYER TO SCORE 1,000 POINTS WITH TWO DIFFERENT TEAMS.

NICK’S PICK: COLTS 28, JAGUARS 20

GIANTS (1-2) AT BILLS (2-1)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: BILLS BY 51/2

BRIEFLY: GIANTS HAVE WON THREE OF PAST FOUR MEETINGS, BUT TWO NONCONFERENCE RIVALS ARE 3-3 SINCE NEW YORK BEAT BUFFALO 20-19 IN 1991 SUPER BOWL IN GAME THAT ENDED WITH BILLS KICKER SCOTT NORWOOD MISSING 47-YARD FIELD-GOAL ATTEMPT WIDE RIGHT IN FINAL SECONDS. ... GIANTS HAVE BEEN OUTSCORED 43-24 IN FINAL 15 MINUTES, AND SQUANDERED DOUBLE-DIGIT FOURTH-QUARTER LEADS IN BOTH LOSSES.

NICK’S PICK: BILLS 23, GIANTS 17

RAIDERS (2-1) AT BEARS (0-3)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: RAIDERS BY 3

BRIEFLY: GAME MATCHES TWO HEAD COACHES WITH HISTORY TOGETHER: CHICAGO’S JOHN FOX AND OAKLAND’S JACK DEL RIO. DEL RIO SERVED AS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR UNDER FOX WITH CAROLINA AND DENVER. ... SEBASTIAN JANIKOWSKI FIGURES TO TIE HALL OF FAMER TIM BROWN FOR FIRST ON RAIDERS’ GAMES PLAYED LIST WITH 240.

NICK’S PICK: BEARS 21, RAIDERS 20

EAGLES (1-2) AT REDSKINS (1-2)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: EAGLES BY 3

BRIEFLY: EAGLES QB SAM BRADFORD HAS FOUR INTS AND 72.5 PASSER RATING. ... AFTER RUSHING FOR ONLY 21 YARDS ON 11 CARRIES THROUGH FIRST TWO GAMES, EAGLES RB DEMARCO MURRAY MISSED WEEK 3, AND HIS STATUS FOR SUNDAY IS UNCERTAIN. ... REDSKINS QB KIRK COUSINS HAS FOUR INTS, TWO APIECE IN WASHINGTON’S TWO LOSSES.

NICK’S PICK: EAGLES 24, REDSKINS 23

TEXANS (1-2) AT FALCONS (3-0)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: FALCONS BY 51/2

BRIEFLY: RB ALFRED BLUE OF LSU HAD 139 YARDS RUSHING WITH TD LAST WEEK AGAINST TAMPA BAY. HE HAS 467 YARDS RUSHING IN SIX CAREER STARTS. ... RB ARIAN FOSTER COULD RETURN FROM GROIN INJURY. ... ... FALCONS ARE FIRST NFL TEAM TO BE 3-0 WHEN TRAILING IN FOURTH QUARTER OF EACH GAME. ... WR JULIO JONES’ 34 CATCHES ARE MOST IN NFL HISTORY THROUGH THREE GAMES. JONES ALSO LEADS NFL WITH 440 YARDS RECEIVING.

NICK’S PICK: FALCONS 28, TEXANS 21

BROWNS (1-2) AT CHARGERS (1-2)

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

LINE: CHARGERS BY 7

BRIEFLY: BROWNS HAVE LOST THREE STRAIGHT IN SAN DIEGO SINCE 30-24 OT WIN IN 1991. ... BROWNS QBS COACH KEVIN O’CONNELL PLAYED AT SAN DIEGO STATE, SPENT TIME ON CHARGERS ROSTER IN 2012. ... JOSH MCCOWN COULD JOIN OTTO GRAHAM, BRIAN SIPE AND BRIAN HOYER AS ONLY BROWNS QBS TO THROW FOR 300 YARDS IN CONSECUTIVE GAMES. ... CHARGERS TE ANTONIO GATES SERVES FINAL GAME OF FOUR-GAME SUSPENSION FOR TESTING POSITIVE FOR PEDS.

NICK’S PICK: CHARGERS 24, BROWNS 16

PACKERS (3-0) AT 49ERS (1-2)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

LINE: PACKERS BY 71/2

BRIEFLY: FIFTH MEETING BETWEEN TEAMS SINCE 2012. ... 49ERS HAVE WON LAST FOUR SINCE GREEN BAY BEAT SAN FRANCISCO 34-16 ON DEC. 5, 2010, AT LAMBEAU FIELD FOR EIGHT-GAME WINNING STREAK IN SERIES. THREE OF LAST FOUR 49ERS’ WINS DECIDED BY EIGHT OR FEWER POINTS. ... IN SIX STARTS VS. SAN FRANCISCO INCLUDING PLAYOFFS, QB AARON RODGERS IS 147 OF 221 FOR 1,712 YARDS, 13 TOUCHDOWNS, THREE INTERCEPTIONS AND 103.7 PASSER RATING. ... 49ERS GAVE UP 90 POINTS OVER TWO GAMES FOR FIRST TIME SINCE 1980.

NICK’S PICK: PACKERS 31, 49ERS 24

VIKINGS (2-1) AT BRONCOS (3-0)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

LINE: BRONCOS BY 7

BRIEFLY: ONLY GAME THIS WEEKEND THAT PITS TWO TEAMS WITH WINNING RECORDS. ... QB TEDDY BRIDGEWATER HAS WON THREE OF LAST FOUR STARTS. ... RB ADRIAN PETERSON COMING OFF 126-YARD RUSHING PERFORMANCE AGAINST SAN DIEGO THAT INCLUDED TWO TDS, HIS FIRST SCORES SINCE NOV. 24, 2013. ... LB CHAD GREENWAY HAD 91-YARD PICK-6 LAST WEEK. .... GARY KUBIAK IS THIRD COACH IN BRONCOS HISTORY TO START 3-0 IN FIRST YEAR, JOINING RED MILLER (1977) AND JOSH MCDANIELS (2009).

NICK’S PICK: BRONCOS 28, VIKINGS 21

RAMS (1-2) AT CARDINALS (3-0)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

LINE: CARDINALS BY 7

BRIEFLY: CARDINALS ARE 3-1 AGAINST RAMS UNDER COACH BRUCE ARIANS. ... ARIZONA’S LARRY FITZGERALD HAS AS MANY TDS (5) AS ENTIRE RAMS TEAM. ... IN FIRST QUARTER, RAMS HAVE BEEN OUTSCORED 20-0, CARDINALS OUTSCORED OPPONENTS 35-10. .... ARIZONA HAS 126 POINTS THROUGH THREE GAMES, RAMS 50.

NICK’S PICK: CARDINALS 28, RAMS 17

LIONS (0-3) AT SEAHAWKS (1-2)

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Monday

LINE: SEAHAWKS BY 91/2

BRIEFLY: FIRST MEETING SINCE 2012 IN DETROIT, GAME DECIDED ON TITUS YOUNG’S TOUCHDOWN CATCH WITH 20 SECONDS LEFT. SEAHAWKS WON SEVEN OF FINAL EIGHT THAT SEASON AFTER LOSS TO LIONS. ... LIONS COMMITTED SEVEN TURNOVERS IN LAST GAME IN SEATTLE IN 2009. ... LIONS TRYING TO AVOID FIRST 0-4 START SINCE 2010 WHEN THEY STARTED 0-4 AND FINISHED 6-10. ... SEAHAWKS ARE 13-2 IN PRIME-TIME GAMES UNDER PETE CARROLL. ... JIMMY GRAHAM HAD SEVEN CATCHES AND TD LAST WEEK VS. BEARS AFTER HAVING JUST ONE CATCH IN WEEK 2 AT GREEN BAY.

NICK’S PICK: SEAHAWKS 24, LIONS 17

FOR THE RECORD

Nick’s picks last week: 12-3

For the season: 25-20