The time has finally come! Football season begins!
The Falcons were coming off a terrible season with a new GM, new head coach and a starting quarterback that many felt would take three or four years to develop. They finished 4-12 simply by the grace of Seattle resting their starters in the final game of the 2007 season. The lone bright spot was wide receiver Roddy White and the play of 3rd string quarterback Chris Redman.
Miami on the other hand had a new GM, new head coach and a veteran quarterback that few thought would ever become a real NFL signal caller. They went out and picked up free agent Joey Porter while many of the Dolphins veterans were given pink slips.
If you had to select a Cinderella story for the AFC and NFC in 2008, look no further than Sunday's match up. Both organizations made strides to becoming a force in their respective conferences last season.
For the Falcons, they are no longer overlooked thanks to the play of 2008 NFL MVP runner-up Michael Turner. Make no mistake as to why Matt Ryan had the amazing rookie campaign he celebrated last season. The Falcons ride on the wheels of "The Burner" Turner. The additions of Tony Gonzalez and Mike Peterson really amplified the message of "Follow the Process" coach Mike Smith preaches regularly. The process is simple. Improve your team every time a chance presents itself. The Falcons secondary was torched in the preseason and within one week GM Thomas Dimitroff traded a 7th round pick for Tye Hill, a former 2006 first round pick. Immediately following that up with Brian Williams, a Mike Smith protege from Jacksonville. Follow the process...
The Dolphins are coming off an eye-opening season. They proved that Chad Pennington is a legitimate Quarterback and they completely dismantled the New England Patriots with the formation simply referred to as "The Wildcat." We will discuss that further in the article. They reached out to veteran defensive end Jason Taylor and brought him back into the fold to go with standout linebacker Joey Porter. They upgraded their secondary in the draft with the selection of Sean Smith who has been impressive to say the least. The offensive line isn't playing as well as expected in the preseason but the whistle counts on Sunday.
WHAT THEY HAVE IN COMMON
- If you listen to prognosticators you would get the idea the concensus feeling is both teams can be better this season and still win less games.
- Both teams are built very similar. Run the ball and stop the run.
- This is the second season for GMs Thomas Dimitroff and Bill Parcells. It's also the second season for heach coaches Mike Smith and Tony Sporano. Both come into the season 11-5 at their respective postions.
- Both franchises courted now GM Bill Parcells in 2008. Parcells used his leverage with Arthur Blank to solidify his position in Miami.
WHAT TO EXPECT SUNDAY
- A lot of fighting. When you put Falcons offensive guard Harvey Dahl on the field at the same time as Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter, expect chaos. Tyson Clabo versus Jason Taylor should be fun to watch.
- The wildcat offense. Both teams utilize this formation with running backs Ronnie Brown and Jerious Norwood. Of the 32 NFL teams none can contest these two teams are the most effective with it to date.
But lets break down the "Wildcat" offense, shall we? It was touted as some new alien formation that was invented last season. Ask any Falcons fan if they remember seeing a running back taking snaps instead of the quarterback. The first response they will have is, "That Carolina game."
It was Christmas Eve in 2006. The Birds started the season 6-2 and showed they were prepared to break that back to back losing seasons streak. In 41 years, they had never won back to back. This was the year. It all mounted on a victory against the Panthers, at home, against Chris Weinke! Merry Christmas Weinke, you won your first game in 5 years.
But it wasn't Weinke. It was running backs Deshaun Foster and rookie DeAngelo Williams. Chris Weinke was on the field 10 times total the entire game. They torched the Falcons for 183 yards on the ground snapping to Foster who either ran it or handed off to Williams. That said, the Falcons defense did not give up a run longer than 11 yards and held the Panthers to a 3.5 rushing average. Still, it was torture. Arthur Blank has seen that offense and you can bet he's nervous. The good news for Falcons fans is coach Mike Smith is not.
On Sirius NFL radio with Bob Papa and Randy Cross Tuesday morning they asked him how he planned to defend it.
"Right now defensive coordinators must game plan for that offense. They can run the option, the wishbone or the single wing. This creates space issues that must be accounted for by the play calling."
"I think there is a much better chance of seeing it from the Dolphins than the Colts. It's mainly a diversion from the real defense that you want to prepare for going into the game. You must account for it."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR SUNDAY
- A lot of big plays. Both teams have playmakers that can take the ball the distance. Stopping the run will be key for the winning team.
- Matt Ryan may become a top 5 quarterback someday. That said, his first obstacle will be a very aggressive Miami defense.
- Miami has had issues on the offensive line and the Falcons have had issues on the defensive line.
WHO TO WATCH
- Michael Turner - Turner looked downright beastly in the pre-season. It seems no matter who engages him, they lose. Ask Shawn Merriman about that.
- Tony Gonzalez - In his first game as a Falcon, he gets the honor of blocking down on both Joey Porter and Jason Taylor. That said, they get the honor of covering him.
- Joey Porter - You think he's fired up? Imagine Porter and Turner one on one. That will be a collision head round the NFL.
- Chad Pennington - The Falcons defense has shown improvement against the run at the expense of the pass. Pennington could have a great day if they can resist using the wild cat too often.
THE FINAL VERDICT
This is a very difficult game to predict. Both franchises are well run from top to bottom. There are two things that typically trump split odds. The team with the better quarterback and the team playing at home. I feel safe in selecting the Falcons with those two things in mind.
Field position and turnovers will make the difference. The Falcons have the best punt team in the business and Matt Ryan protects the ball. In close games, the teams with the best 2 minute offense carry the advantage. Atlanta wins at home.