The Atlanta Falcons failed to showcase their preseason billing as one of the top teams in the NFC with a Week 1 loss at Chicago.
With former savior Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles set to invade the Georgia Dome Sunday night, the Falcons must put aside all the hoopla leading up to kickoff and focus on getting back to respectability on the field.
Atlanta played poorly on defense in a 30-12 loss to the Bears in the season opener for both teams at Soldier Field, while offensive stars Matt Ryan and Michael Turner could not do enough to keep their team in the game. Even though Ryan completed 31 of his 47 attempts for 319 yards, he was intercepted once and did not have a touchdown pass. Turner hit the 100-yard rushing mark on 10 carries for the Falcons, who can't get too down on themselves after just one loss.
The Falcons also lost their season opener a year ago, then won four straight and 12 of the next 13 games en route to the top seed in the conference.
Defensive end John Abraham believes there's nothing to worry about just yet.
"I'm just glad it happened now, rather than the playoffs or later in the season," said Abraham, who registered two of Atlanta's five sacks against the Bears. "I think this is going to be a learning lesson for our team to show us that we're not where we want to be. We can still build and get where we want to."
Turnovers also hurt the defending NFC South champion Falcons in the Windy City, including two in the first half that led to 10 Chicago points. It wasn't the type of start the Falcons had in mind, and now they're trying to avoid beginning 0-2 for the first time since losing the first three games of the 2007 campaign. They lost six of their first seven games that turbulent season.
Atlanta will play three of its next five games at the Georgia Dome, where Ryan is a sizzling 20-2 in his career during the regular season.
Vick, meanwhile, spent his first six years in the NFL with the Falcons from 2001-06 before serving prison time for his involvement in an illegal dog- fighting ring. He will make his second return to Atlanta in an Eagles uniform, but first as a full-time starter. Vick saw limited action as a rarely-used backup in Philadelphia's 34-7 drubbing of the Falcons on Dec. 6, 2009, but realizes this matchup will be much different.
"Going back as a starter is different than it was in 2009, when I spot-played a little bit and just had an opportunity to go out there and make a couple plays," said Vick. "The emotional aspect of it I'm over, but it'll be great to go back to the [Georgia] Dome, play against a former team, have an opportunity to play against some guys that I played with. It's going to be different going back as the starter, but at the same time, it'll be fun."
It wasn't fun early on in Philadelphia's 31-13 season-opening victory at St. Louis a week ago, but the offense settled down and the defense caught a break with Rams running back Steven Jackson sitting on the sidelines for most of the game with a quadriceps strain. Had Jackson been healthy enough to finish out the contest, the Eagles' defense would have had even bigger issues to right this week in practice. He had 56 yards on two carries, including a 47-yard touchdown run, prior to exiting.
It still wasn't all bad for Eagles first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, whose unit produced five sacks, forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and held Rams quarterback Sam Bradford to 188 yards on 17- of-30 passing.
"It was big because it allowed us to calm down," Asomugha said of Parker's touchdown. "At first, after that first [Jackson's touchdown run], everybody was so amped it was like, 'let's relax a little bit'. Then when we finally made that play, everybody was like OK, let's get the momentum to swing our way."
Running back LeSean McCoy added some momentum with 122 yards and a score on 15 carries and also had a touchdown reception for the Eagles, who haven't started 2-0 since opening the 2004 season with seven straight wins and reaching the Super Bowl for just the second time in franchise history.
The Eagles have Super Bowl expectations seven years later, and are hoping an offseason spending spree can get them there. The Falcons, of course, are one of a few teams in the NFC that figures to be standing in the way of that dream.
The Eagles are 15-10-1 lifetime against the Falcons in regular-season play, and last season's 31-17 win was the team's fourth straight in the series. Philadelphia routed Atlanta by a 34-7 count in its most recent visit to the Georgia Dome back in 2009, though the Falcons played that contest without an injured Ryan, and also posted home wins in both 2006 (24-17) and 2008 (27-14). The Eagles have lost in four of their past six trips to Atlanta, however, including a 14-10 Monday night setback to open the 2005 season against a Falcons squad that was then quarterbacked by Vick.
Philadelphia also holds an edge on the Falcons in the postseason, having prevailed in two of the three playoff matchups between the teams. The Eagles defeated visiting Atlanta by a 27-10 margin in the 2004 NFC Championship and recorded a 20-6 verdict at Lincoln Financial Field in a 2002 NFC Divisional Playoff, but dropped a 14-13 decision to the visiting Falcons in a 1978 NFC First-Round clash.
The Eagles' Andy Reid is 8-1 as a head coach against Atlanta, which includes the two aforementioned playoff wins. The Falcons' Mike Smith, on the other hand, has lost all three of his encounters with both Reid and Philadelphia as a head coach.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Vick (187 passing yards, 2 TD) rushed for 97 yards against the Rams and got the Eagles out of trouble with his legs on several occasions. He used to do the same thing with Atlanta, which made him the No. 1 pick back in the 2001 NFL Draft and rode his coattails for six seasons. Vick has said before he wasn't the type of quarterback he is now when he donned the Falcons' Black and Red, and a new $100 million contract he recently received from the Eagles is proof. McCoy (122 rushing yards, 1 TD) is another sign of affirmation, having proven that life after Brian Westbrook at the running back position is possible in Philadelphia. The dual threat out of the backfield will keep Atlanta's defense on its heels in preparation for the unexpected. McCoy also caught two passes for 15 yards and a score in St. Louis and has rushed for 391 yards and four touchdown in his last three indoor games. If Sunday's game turns out to be another track meet for the Eagles in the Georgia Dome, then wide receiver DeSean Jackson (6 receptions, 102 yards, 1 TD) could make a huge impact. The speedster is one of the league's premier big-play threats, and though he's still hoping for a contract extension, his play on the field figures to take care of that situation at some point. fellow wideout Jeremy Maclin had just one catch last Sunday, but burned the Falcons for a career- best 159 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches a year ago. The offensive line allowed three sacks to the Rams last week, but otherwise played well with new personnel.
The Falcons didn't have to worry about Vick last season because he missed the game while nursing injured ribs. Still, Kevin Kolb shredded Atlanta's defense for 326 yards and three touchdown passes with one interception by safety William Moore (3 tackles) in that matchup. If the Falcons had trouble with Bears running back Matt Forte, who had 68 yards rushing and 90 receiving yards with a touchdown catch last week, then McCoy could be in for a big night too. Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon (10 tackles) and Curtis Lofton (8 tackles) will first try to contain Vick, as Lofton said this week that the defense must keep the All-Pro in the pocket and not allow him to get out near the perimeter. A group effort and a mix of blitzes and coverage schemes might be able to accomplish that goal. Abraham (4 tackles) is coming off a strong two-sack performance and will be looking for more against the Eagles' elusive quarterback. He owns six sacks in his past six home games as well, and his 104 1/2 career total is second most among active players. Abraham also leads the NFL with 12 lifetime sacks in the month of September and has 51 since joining the Falcons back in 2006. Defensive end Kroy Biermann (3 tackles) intercepted a tipped ball and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown in Week 1, while cornerback Dunta Robinson (6 tackles) is healthy after knocking DeSean Jackson and himself out of last year's meeting with a hard hit.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Smith said he was disappointed after the Falcons' loss in Chicago and that the team will get things corrected. It first starts with Ryan (319 passing yards, 1 INT), who did not have a touchdown pass and will be attempting to allow his consistent play at the Georgia Dome to continue Sunday night. He had a streak of 15 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass snapped in last week's loss, and was sacked five times as well. Last season, the only game he did not find the end zone was the team's season-opening loss to Pittsburgh. Ryan, a native of the Philadelphia area, still eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark for the fifth time in his career last week, and now he'll try to notch his sixth against Philadelphia's talented cornerbacks. Wide receiver Roddy White (8 receptions, 61 yards) had an exceptional campaign in 2010 and will be counted on to get going early in an attempt to put the Eagles on their heels. He had a team-high eight catches against the Bears, while tight end Tony Gonzalez (5 receptions, 72 yards) led the Falcons in receiving yards. Though he's getting up there in age, the 35-year-old Gonzalez can still move and create problems for Philly's young linebackers. He had two touchdown catches in last year's meeting. Falcons rookie wide receiver Julio Jones (71 yards), who cost the team several draft picks when it moved up several spot to take him sixth overall in the 2011 draft, recorded five receptions in his NFL debut. Turner's (100 rushing yards) production will be key to Atlanta's chances as well on Sunday.
Philadelphia's biggest concern this week has to be run defense, an area in which the unit could use the most work. Steven Jackson bounced off of Eagle defenders like a pinball before missing the rest of last week's game due to injury, but backup Cadillac Williams picked up where Jackson left off with 91 yards on 19 carries. The Eagles have to expect a healthy dose of Turner in Atlanta's home opener. Rookie middle linebacker Casey Matthews (4 tackles), the less athletic brother of Packers All-Pro Clay Matthews, was seen chasing the ball carrier several times last week and is one of several young players on Castillo's defense that's still learning. So are outside linebackers Jamar Chaney (6 tackles) and Moise Fokou (5 tackles), two players that possess speed, but can only get you so far in the NFL. Like the Rams' Jackson, Gonzalez has to be pumped up to play against Philadelphia's inexperienced linebackers and should get some looks across the middle and inside the red zone if and when Atlanta reaches that point. Defensive end Jason Babin (4 tackles) had two of the Eagles' five sacks in St. Louis, while linemen Trent Cole, Darryl Tapp and Cullen Jenkins each had one. Corners Asomugha and Asante Samuel (5 tackles) will have White and Jones to worry about in coverage.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Vick's return to Atlanta as a starter has grabbed the attention of football fans across the nation, and it will be interesting to see how the crowd reacts. Vick said in a recent radio interview this week it took him a while to calm down during last Sunday's game and doesn't want to that to happen again, since the Eagles can ill-afford to have an erratic quarterback in the pocket.
Atlanta saw how much trouble Steven Jackson gave Philadelphia's defense early on before exiting with an injury, and knows that getting Turner off to a good start is important. Turner was held to 45 yards on 15 carries in last year's meeting, while Ryan passed for 250 with two touchdowns and an interception.
Both teams possess explosive offenses, but which one will turn this matchup into a track meet? The Falcons have White and Jones on the outside, while DeSean Jackson and Maclin serve as the Eagles' top receiving threats. Protection up front and creating space in the secondary will be vital for the success of both squads.
Vick said that the Georgia Dome is no longer his house and he's now just a visitor in Ryan's domain. He will get to see first-hand how the Atlanta faithful will stand by "Matty Ice" in the Falcons' first win of the season against the Eagles, a franchise dubbed as the "Dream Team" in the offseason. It's understandable that the Falcons' defense will attack Vick from all possible angles, since leaving him open in space is a dangerous proposition. However, unleashing Turner on an inexperienced Philadelphia defense coming off a fortunate win from the week before seems like an ideal choice for the hosts. It won't be a lopsided score, but both NFC powerhouses will have similar records when the clock strikes zero.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Eagles 24