For tight end Tony Gonzalez, it's the beginning of the end. But for the rest of the Atlanta Falcons, it's expected to be the beginning of, well...the beginning.
Gonzalez, whose Hall of Fame clock begins ticking the instant he retires, will visit Arrowhead Stadium for the first time as an opposing player when the Falcons start the rebound from yet another early premature playoff exit in Sunday's clash with a Kansas City Chiefs team he starred on for over a decade.
The 12-time Pro Bowler has never faced the Chiefs, for whom he still holds team records in receptions (916), receiving yards (10,940) and touchdown catches (76) after a sterling 12-year run from 1997 through 2008.
Gonzalez was traded to Atlanta following that last season for a 2010 draft pick that the rebuilding Chiefs ultimately used on defensive back Javier Arenas.
"It's going to be a little weird being in a different locker room and coming out of that tunnel when we first come in," Gonzalez said. "It's going to be a little weird, but I'm looking forward to it."
Gonzalez was 0-3 in the playoffs with Kansas City and is 0-2 in postseason games with Atlanta. The Falcons were beaten, 24-2, by the New York Giants last winter in the opening round of the NFC Playoffs.
"I realize we have an opportunity to go to the playoffs, win a playoff game, and that's what I want," he said. "I've been playing my whole career for a chance to go to the Super Bowl and I feel we have as good a chance as anybody."
Quarterback Matt Ryan has guided the Falcons to 43 wins in 62 regular-season games over the last four years. But he's winless in playoff appearances that followed the 2008, 2010 and 2011 schedules.
Still, optimism is evident.
"I think this is probably the most talented group we've had up to this point," Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said. "We can all run. I think our team's fast. I think we play fast. I think it can be special."
The Falcons return the NFC's leading returning rusher (Michael Turner) and two of its best receivers (White and Julio Jones). Ryan threw for 29 touchdowns last year, including 20 in the final nine games.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan takes over a unit that added four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel to a secondary that also contains high-end corners Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson.
"The [Falcons'] secondary in general is an outstanding secondary, probably one of the best secondaries we'll go up against all year," Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said.
Injuries limited Cassel to nine games in 2011 after he helped Kansas City to an AFC West title in 2010.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel replaced jettisoned ex-coach Todd Haley with three games remaining last season and Kansas City won two of them, including a downing of the then-unbeaten Green Bay Packers, who finished 15-1.
Now the permanent head coach, Crenel will retain control of the defense, but the unit is dotted with personnel issues that include a one-game suspension to outside linebacker Tamba Hali and injuries to inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, cornerback Brandon Flowers and safety Kendrick Lewis.
Back from a long-term injury absence is safety Eric Berry, who missed most of 2011 with a torn ACL. 2012 first-round draft pick Dontari Poe, a defensive tackle, may start from day one.
"Other guys have to step up and they have to be relentless," Crennel said. "Like Eric Berry, he's going to be relentless with or without Tamba. I think other guys will have to play the same way."
Success on offense would save some on-field time for the Kansas City defense. The Chiefs grinded out 2,627 rushing yards in 2010, but plummeted to 1,893 in 2011 as standout running back Jamaal Charles played just two games before sustaining his own torn ACL.
Charles is back to head a backfield that now includes former 1,000-yard rusher Peyton Hillis, who joins the Chiefs from Cleveland via free agency.
Chiefs lead 5-2
Last Meeting: Falcons 38, Chiefs 14 (Sept. 21, 2008 at Atlanta) Last Meeting at Site: Chiefs 56, Falcons 10 (Oct. 24, 2004)
Falcons HC Mike Smith vs. Chiefs: 1-0 Chiefs HC Romeo Crennel vs. Falcons: 1-0 overall, 0-0 with Kansas City Smith vs. Crennel Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Falcons are 0-3 all-time at Arrowhead Stadium and have been outscored by a 108-23 margin in those three defeats, but have won two of the last three overall matchups in the series. Crennel's lone encounter with Atlanta as a head coach came while with Cleveland in 2006, a 17-13 Browns' victory at the Georgia Dome.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Atlanta: 10th overall (376.6 ypg), 17th rushing (114.6 ypg), 8th passing (262.0 ypg), 7th scoring (25.1 ppg)
Kansas City: 27th overall (310.8 ypg), 15th rushing (118.3 ypg), 25th passing (192.5 ypg), 31st scoring (13.3 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Atlanta: 12th overall (333.6 ypg), 6th rushing (97.0 ypg), 20th passing (236.6 ypg), 18th scoring (21.9 ppg)
Kansas City: 11th overall (333.3 ypg), 26th rushing (132.0 ypg), 6th passing (201.3 ypg), 18th scoring (21.1 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Atlanta: +8 (29 takeaways, 21 giveaways) Kansas City: -2 (26 takeaways, 28 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Atlanta: 52.5 percent (59 possessions, 31 TD, 21 FG) -- 13th overall Kansas City: 33.3 percent (36 possessions, 12 TD, 15 FG) -- 32nd overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Atlanta: 46.8 percent (47 possessions, 22 TD, 15 FG) -- 8th overall Kansas City: 54.9 percent (51 possessions, 28 TD, 13 FG) -- 18th overall
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Putting up numbers in the regular season hasn't been a concern for Ryan (4177 passing yards, 29 TD, 12 INT in 2011) and his cast of weapons, which grew with last season's all-in move to draft Jones (54 receptions, 8 TD) as a complement to the veteran White (100 receptions, 1296 yards, 8 TD). Both are back this season along with the Canton-bound Gonzalez (80 receptions, 7 TD) and dynamic runner Turner (1340 rushing yards, 11 TD, 17 receptions). The Falcons were 10th in total offense and seventh in scoring last season, averaging 376.6 yards and 25.1 points per game in those categories, respectively.
Of particular concern to the Kansas City defense is the one-game suspension absence of All-Pro pass rusher Hali (66 tackles, 12 sacks) and the iffy full- game health of left cornerback Brandon Flowers (59 tackles, 4 INT), who struggled through preseason with a heel injury. The Chiefs were lit up to the tune of 116 points in four preseason games, including 44 at home against Seattle and 31 on the road at St. Louis - two less than scintillating offenses. If they concoct a scheme solely to limit Ryan and Co., it could clear the way for Turner, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored 11 rushing touchdowns last season.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Cassel (1713 passing yards, 10 TD, 9 INT) has some horses of his own in prolific wideout Dwayne Bowe (81 receptions, 1159 yards, 5 TD) and emerging playmaker Jon Baldwin (21 receptions, 1 TD), but in a game where his defense is matched up against a more-dynamic foe, the strategy might shift to the ball-controlling prowess of running backs Charles and Hillis. Charles finished second in the NFL with 1,467 rushing yards in 2010 but is returning from an ACL tear suffered early last season, while Hillis - a former Madden cover boy - comes over after a disappointing final season with the Browns in which he gained 587 yards on 161 carries in 10 games, one year after he'd rushed for 1,177 yards and scored 11 times. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll had Hillis in Cleveland for that 2010 breakout, so familiarity could lead to a quick early role.
On defense, the Falcons are quick to get to the quarterback and had solid numbers against the run, finishing sixth in the league with an average of 97 yards per game allowed on the ground last season, but they're facing a mammoth Kansas City offensive line that was among the strengths of a unit that averaged 118.3 rushing yards per game without Hillis and mostly minus Charles in 2011. Chiefs center Rodney Hudson starts his first game since replacing the departed Casey Wiegmann and at 6-foot-2, 299 pounds, will have a size edge on Atlanta tackles Jonathan Babineaux (21 tackles, 1 sack) and Peria Jerry. Additionally, second-year man Akeem Dent is a new starter at middle linebacker and made just 20 tackles last season.
They're on the road to start the season and Arrowhead Stadium is never the easiest venue, but the Falcons are probably not your garden-variety opponent either. A series of playoff flameouts have the fan base - not to mention the owner - impatient, which means little margin for error is left for a first- week stumble. The Chiefs may play ball-control and try to limit possessions, but Ryan should have enough opportunity for at least one decisive big play.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 28, Chiefs 17