|Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez will return on Sunday to Arrowhead Stadium, where he played for 12 seasons as a member of the Chiefs. (US Presswire)|
Falcons vs. Chiefs -- Week 1
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo. (grass)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Spread: Atlanta by 1
Forecast: Sunny; projected kickoff temperature: 86
2011 records: Falcons (10-6); Chiefs (7-9)
Past Results: Two most recent meetings -- Sept. 21, 2008: Falcons 38, Chiefs 14; Oct. 24, 2004: Chiefs 56, Falcons 10. Series record: Chiefs hold a 5-2 edge over Atlanta.
What Matters: The Atlanta Falcons will inaugurate two coordinators against the Chiefs -- Dirk Koetter on offense and Mike Nolan on defense. Nolan will likely have a harder time game-planning against the Chiefs, who boast numerous big-play threats like RBs Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis and wideout Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs averaged just 310 yards per game last season (27th in the NFL), but that was without Charles, who tore his ACL in the second game of the season last year. They also didn't have Hillis, who signed with Kansas City this offseason. Nolan coaches a base 4-3 defense keen on stopping the run. What’s difficult about the Chiefs is that their two halfbacks run with completely different styles. Charles likes to skirt around defenders, and Hillis likes to bowl them over. Fifth-year QB Matt Ryan will have a chance to prove whether his stellar preseason was an anomaly when he faces the stingy Chiefs secondary, which was sixth in the NFL in pass defense.
Who matters: Second-year LB Akeem Dent will be making the first start of his NFL career Sunday. His task? Replace LB Curtis Lofton, who led the Falcons with 159 tackles last season but left in free agency to the rival Saints. Dent won’t quite be expected to equal Lofton’s production, but Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is expecting solid play for at least two downs. “They’ve got to start somewhere,” he told Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I have been pleased with what he’s done so far.” If Dent falters, that will put more pressure on OLB Sean Weatherspoon (115 tackles last year), who’s expected to have a breakout season. Containing the run -- the Chiefs' best asset -- will be of the utmost importance Sunday. When the Falcons have the ball, Julio Jones, who set a franchise record with eight touchdown passes last year, will be essential if the Kansas City secondary double-teams leading receiver Roddy White.
Key Matchups: LT Sam Baker vs. Andy Studebaker. Baker, who started six games at left tackle last season due to a back injury, has a lot to prove to justify his first-round selection in 2008. Fortunately, the Chiefs’ sack leader Tamba Hali will miss the game because of a substance abuse violation. Baker needs to show he’s capable of covering Matt Ryan’s blind side, especially against Kansas City, which tied for the third-fewest sacks last season with 29.
Injuries of note: Backup RB Jason Snelling and CB Christopher Owens participated fully in Thursday’s practice and should be ready to go Sunday.
Inside stuff: Keep an eye on who returns punts for the Falcons. Harry Douglas was listed as No. 1 on the depth chart, but the Falcons released WR Tim Toone this week and signed CB Dominique Franks. Toone and Franks split the punt-returning duties this preseason, and the last time that Douglas returned punts was in 2008.
Connections: Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and Kansas City offensive coordinator Brian Daboll were with the Dolphins last year in their same respective positions. Miami had the 22nd ranked offense (317 ypg), and Nolan's defense allowed 345 yards per game, 15th in the NFL.
Stat you should know: 76 -- The number of touchdowns TE Tony Gonzalez caught while playing 12 seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs. After three seasons in Atlanta, he’s up to 95 touchdowns, ninth on the all-time list. Sunday will be his first visit back to Arrowhead Stadium. “It’s going to be kind of weird going in there. It’s going to be like going back to the house that you grew up in,” he said to Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Looking Ahead: The Chiefs may have the least-talented quarterback, Matt Cassel, of all the teams Atlanta will face throughout the first five weeks (Denver, San Diego, Carolina, Washington). Winning the opener Sunday will be a good way to forget about last season’s ugly 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants.
Prediction: Falcons 27-17
For more Falcons coverage, follow Mike Singer @CBSSportsNFLATL.