Carolina Panthers: Week 2—Georgia Dome
Jake Delhomme vs. Falcons secondary
For both Jake Delhomme and the Falcons’ young, unproven secondary, this game is like playing Madden Football on the rookie setting.
If you don’t do well here, it doesn’t bode well for your chances the rest of the year.
When we last saw Delhomme, he was being thoroughly dismantled as a human being by the Arizona Cardinals. He threw five interceptions and coughed up a fumble in what has to be one of the worst playoff performances by a quarterback on any level, ever.
Delhomme opens the season against the Philadelphia Eagles. If he plays poorly in that game, his psyche may be on life support coming into the Dome in week two. It could be time for Chris Houston, Thomas DeCoud, and company to get an ego boost.
This matchup is kind of like the Washington-Washington State game in the Pac-10 last season.
If the Falcons win, someone on the Falcons’ secondary will say something like, “We may not have much to brag about, but at least we didn’t lose to Jake Delhomme.”
New England Patriots: Week 3—Gillette Stadium
John Abraham vs. Matt Light
Abraham will likely line up against Light on Brady’s blind side for much of the game. It’s a winnable matchup for the Falcons’ sack master (16 and a half in 2008), as Light—regarded as the Patriots’ best offensive lineman—surrendered a mediocre seven and a half sacks last season.
If Abraham can’t get it done against Light, the Falcons will have to resort to stunts, corner blitzes, or some other dog and pony act to get some of their other players to Brady.
Or they’ll have to employ the Kansas City strategy and just go for his knees.
Chicago Bears: Week 6—Georgia Dome
Michael Koenen vs. Devin Hester
The NFL finally figured out a strategy to slow down the return game of the Chicago Bears last season.
Don’t kick the ball to Devin Hester.
He torched the league for 11 return touchdowns in his first two seasons. Hester was shut out last year, mostly because opponents began avoiding him like he was the middle school kid who has yet to discover deodorant.
It worked for the Falcons last season. They were the only team to not allow Hester to touch the ball on a punt return all season.
But that was par for the course for the Falcons’ punt team. Koenen forced a league-high 27 fair catches last season, as the punt unit allowed an NFL record low of 49 yards in punt returns.
It will be interesting to see if Hester regains his punt return mojo and can turn the tables on Koenen.
Cowboys: Week 7—Cowboys Stadium
Keith Brooking vs. Michael Turner
There are two matchups that intrigue me in the Cowboys game. The first is a no-brainer.
Once Michael Vick left, Keith Brooking basically became the de facto face of the Falcons’ franchise. His history in Atlanta is well documented. He played high school football in the suburb of Newnan, college ball at Georgia Tech, and his entire career in the NFL with the Falcons.
It’s fitting that in his first season playing for a team outside of the ATL, he’ll get a chance to square off against Turner. The breakout running back of 2008 has become (along with quarterback Matt Ryan) the face of the post-Vick Falcons’ miraculous turnaround.
Brooking is on the tail end of his career, and his skills are waning. I’m guessing that if Turner finds him in the open field, Brooking will simply end up on his tail.
The other matchup from this game is...
Sam Baker and Justin Blalock vs. DeMarcus Ware
Baker and Blalock were drafted in the last two years to anchor the left side of the Falcons’ offensive line—that means protecting Ryan’s blind side from sack-minded machines like Ware.
Ware exploded for 20 sacks last season. He’s listed as a linebacker on the Cowboys’ depth chart, but he’ll line up all over the field in pass rushing situations.
If Baker and Blalock can keep him off of Ryan’s back, there will be an immediate and long-term reward.
The immediate reward will be that Ryan won’t have the slobber knocked out of him.
But the long-term benefit will be a growing trust between the quarterback and his offensive line that the great passers always seem to develop.
If Blalock and Baker can block a monster like Ware, then Ryan may not want to wait until the end of the season to buy them some shiny new Rolexes.
Redskins: Week 9—Georgia Dome
Roddy White vs. DeAngelo Hall
The Falcons faced the Raiders last season when Hall was in the Oakland secondary. He largely was left to cover lesser receivers like Brian Finneran, and rarely lined up opposite White.
So here’s hoping that the two get to go nose-to-nose a little bit in the Dome.
Giants: Week 11—Giants Stadium
Michael Boley vs. Tony Gonzalez
Another NFC East opponent, and another former Falcon to face off against. This time it’s Michael Boley who will have a chance to prove himself against his former team—and its new star tight end.
Boley was projected to be a pillar of the new, young group of linebackers that the Falcons were developing. But some off-field issues (Boley is suspended from the first game this season thanks to an incident in which he was arrested for battering his wife last year) led to a fall from grace, and the Falcons let Boley go via free agency.
Boley has been hurt, so it’s unclear what his specific role will be with the Giants. If his strengths of speed and agility are utilized properly, then he’ll see plenty of Gonzalez downfield in Texas Stadium.
It will be an intriguing matchup, but very few linebackers have looked good covering Gonzalez.
Eagles: Week 13—Georgia Dome
The Return of Michael Vick
With the news that Michael Vick signed with the Eagles, Dec. 6 became a red-letter date for Falcons fans and Atlanta PETA protesters alike.
Although only two seasons have passed, very few players that were Vick’s teammates remain on the team, so there won’t be any kind of grudge match in that regard.
And Vick seems humbled enough by his situation that I’m guessing he has no interest in saying something dumb like, “I’m going to make them pay for releasing me.”
The real intrigue lies in the reaction of the fans to his presence.
Given the outrage that surfaced in this city when Vick was convicted on dogfighting charges, the game is certain to be an absolute circus.
There will be tension aplenty in the Georgia Dome stands, as Vick’s situation created a passionate polarization among fans.
Atlanta sports fans have often been criticized for their indifference.
This would actually be one week where that would be a good thing.
Jets: Week 15—Giants Stadium
Matt Ryan v. Mark Sanchez
It will be a matchup of two high-draft-pick quarterbacks who are seen as the saviors of floundering franchises.
I’m guessing that, given the struggles that rookie quarterbacks and their teams often undergo, seeing Mark Sanchez will be a not-so-subtle reminder of just how rare a bird Matt Ryan has been.