The Atlanta Falcons open the 2012 NFL season traveling to Kansas City to face the Chiefs. It’s the third consecutive year the Falcons will open the season on the road.
It’s the beginning of redemption for a regime that has put together the best four-year stretch in Falcons history. Since 2008 when Thomas Dimitroff was brought in from New England to be the general manager, Mike Smith was plucked from Jacksonville to be the head coach, and Matt Ryan was drafted out of Boston College, the Falcons have won 43 games and only lost 21.
However, the Falcons have yet to win a playoff game. They’re 0-3, losing to the Arizona Cardinals in 2008 (30-24), Green Bay Packers in 2010 (48-21), and last year to the New York Giants (24-2).
There’s also another story at work here.
For the first and last time in his 16-year illustrious career, tight end Tony Gonzalez will play in Arrowhead Stadium as a visitor. Gonzalez was traded to the Falcons in 2009 for a 2010 second-round draft pick. He spent the first 12 years of his career (1997-2008) in Kansas City, where he owns several franchise records: receptions (916), yards (10,940), and touchdown receptions (76).
“It’s going to be special, it’s going to be kind of weird going in there,” said the future of Hall of Famer. “It’s going to be like going back to the house you grew up in.”
Gonzalez has never won a playoff game in his career. He was 0-3 in Kansas City and he’s 0-2 in Atlanta. This is the tight end’s last year in the league.
The last time the Falcons and Chiefs squared off was in 2008. Ryan was a rookie, and the Falcons won in a 38-14 blowout in the Georgia Dome. Roddy White caught five balls for 113 yards and a touchdown, and Michael Turner ran for 104 yards on 23 carries and three touchdowns. Ryan was efficient, going 12/18 for 193 yards and a touchdown.
However, it was a completely different story in 2004 – the last time the two teams faced off in Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs set an NFL record by rushing for eight touchdowns en route to dismantling the Falcons 56-10. Both Priest Holmes and Derrick Blaylock had four touchdowns apiece.
Considering where the teams are today, I think the game will closer resemble the 2008 match-up.
Last year, the Falcons traded away a lot of draft picks in order to draft Julio Jones. The rookie responded by catching 54 balls for 959 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 full games. This year, the expectations for the second-year receiver have been raised significantly.
Atlanta’s 2011 offense was criticized for being slow-paced despite having fast players. If the preseason is any indicator, changing offensive coordinators has eliminated that corcern. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is a fan of passing down the field, a philosophy in stark contrast to former offensive coordinator and current Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey.
The sky’s the limit for Ryan, who had his best season statistically last year, throwing for 4,177 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. He and Koetter seem to be clicking well. Add Jones, Roddy White, Gonzalez, and Michael Turner to the mix, and this offense could spell trouble for the injury-riddled Chiefs on Sunday.
The Chiefs will be without Pro Bowl outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who is serving a one-game suspension for violating the substance abuse policy. Cornerback Brandon Flowers and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson are both nursing injuries and could very well be out versus the Falcons. Starting safety Kendrick Lewis and nose tackle Anthony Toribio could be scratches as well.
Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Dwayne Bowe, and Jonathan Baldwin are the stars of the Chiefs offense.
After earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2010, Cassel was pretty pedestrian in the nine games he played in 2011. He threw for 1,713 yards, 10 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. If the Chiefs are to beat the Falcons, he needs to return to his 2010 form that saw him throw for 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
Charles is returning after tearing his ACL in Week 2 last season. In 2010, he was second in the league in rushing with 1,467 yards and five touchdowns.
The Falcons have a new defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan, who brings an aggressive blitzing philosophy. He replaces ex-defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose defensive schemes were said to be “vanilla.”
Atlanta traded for cornerback Asante Samuel this past offseason, and his ball-hawking skills should prove to be an asset for the secondary. Adding him to a secondary that already includes Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson could make it very hard for the Chiefs to throw the ball.
When the NFL schedules were released, I provided an analysis for the Falcons’ schedule along with predictions as to how the season will go. The Falcons are three-point favorites against the Chiefs; I think Atlanta will cover.