Falcons vs. Chiefs: 5 Keys to the Game for Atlanta
When Matt Ryan and company run out of the tunnel at Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday, the page will officially be turned.
It's back to football, real football for Atlanta, and the long journey back to the playoffs begins against the Chiefs in Week 1.
New Falcons coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan will be tested right from the start, as Kansas City is out to prove it isn't the same 7-9 team from last year.
Here are the Falcons' five keys to victory.
1. Score Early
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An obvious goal for any team, but one that the Falcons should focus on even more this week.
For a third consecutive year Atlanta starts the season on the road, where Mike Smith's Falcons have struggled historically: Since joining the team in 2008, Smith has won just half of the 34 games played away from the Georgia Dome (excluding the preseason).
Penalties have played a noticeable role in those struggles and it was no different last year, as the usually disciplined Falcons committed four or more in seven of their nine away games in 2011.
Playing before an opposing team's roaring crowd doesn't help, and Arrowhead Stadium is as a hostile environment as you'll find in the NFL.
That makes it imperative that the Falcons quiet the Kansas City fans early in Sunday's game. There's no better way for them to do that than jump out to a big lead in the first quarter and never look back.
2. Spread the Ball on Offense
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The Falcons' receiving corps is made up of a long list of playmakers.
There's no need for Matt Ryan to stare any of them down.
Kansas City will field a banged-up secondary on Sunday, one that isn't known for having many playmakers of its own outside of cornerback Brandon Flowers.
If he's cleared by game time Flowers himself will be playing injured this weekend. But an injured Flowers is still a good Flowers, and it's best the Falcons avoid him as much as possible.
Ryan will be better off playing "find the open man" between Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez, rather than keying in on just one of them for the entire game. Atlanta simply has too much firepower for Kansas City to handle.
Chances are Mike Smith will want to set the tone on the ground early, but it's through the air that the Falcons could have a field day against the Chiefs if they spread the ball evenly on offense.
3. Keep Justin Houston at Bay
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Tamba Hali won't play, but Justin Houston will.
With Hali serving a one-game suspension to open the season, Kansas City hopes Houston can step in as its premier pass rusher this weekend.
The second-year linebacker out of Georgia recorded 5.5 sacks last season, all in the last five games of the season.
His first for this year could come as soon as Sunday if the Falcons aren't able to block him effectively.
Specifically, if Sam Baker can't block him effectively.
Houston is listed at left outside linebacker, but the Chiefs would be smart to slide him into Hali's position on the right side, where he would square up against Atlanta's much-maligned left tackle. Regardless of which side he ends up on, don't be surprised to see him double-teamed on passing downs if the Falcons' line struggles early against him.
With Houston taken care of, Matt Ryan should get all the time he needs to throw the ball downfield.
4. Shut Down the Running Game
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For those wondering what Kansas City's game plan will feature on Sunday, here's a clue: It starts with "Jamaal Charles" and ends with "Peyton Hillis."
With Charles back to form after missing nearly all of last season due to injury and Madden NFL 12 cover athlete Hillis now on the team, the Chiefs will do their best to pound the rock against the Falcons.
That could result in a long afternoon for Akeem Dent and the rest of Atlanta's front seven, especially if they're the same front seven that was gashed on the ground all preseason long.
However, if they find a way to shut down Kansas City's running game it could be smooth sailing for the Falcons.
Not only would it keep the Chiefs from slowing the game down and keeping the ball out of Matt Ryan's hands, but Kansas City would also be forced to depend on Matt Cassel and the passing game, which would be overmatched against Mike Nolan's ball-hawking secondary.
5. Don't Underestimate Romeo Crennel
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Atlanta enters the game as slight favorites despite being on the road.
That's true both in Vegas and at ESPN, where eight of 14 experts predict the Falcons exit Sunday's game with a 1-0 record.
No doubt the Falcons themselves are confident, but they can't let that turn into cockiness.
The Chiefs finished 7-9 last year and aren't the popular pick to make the Super Bowl, but this isn't the same old Chiefs.
It's Romeo Crennel's Chiefs.
Kansas City won two of its last three games in 2011 with Crennel as interim head coach, including a 19-14 victory over the Packers. That gave Green Bay its only loss of the regular season, while Crennel's only loss came in overtime, 16-13, against the Oakland Raiders.
With Crennel leading the charge, the Chiefs feel that they are a playoff-caliber team. The Falcons should treat them as such.