(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons' quest to reach the playoffs after a one-year hiatus got off to a stumbling start in Pittsburgh last week, as Matt Ryan and company failed to find the end zone in a disconcerting 15-9 overtime loss to the Steelers.
In Sunday's home opener, which will bring native son Ken Whisenhunt and recent playoff foe the Arizona Cardinals to the Georgia Dome, the Falcons will be attempting to reassure their fans - and perhaps themselves - that all is still well.
The Falcons went into Pittsburgh as slight favorites, with their three-game winning streak to end a 9-7 campaign in 2009, coupled with the Steelers' installation of the inexperienced Dennis Dixon as the Week 1 starter, having much to do with that fact.
But Atlanta failed to deliver on the pre-game respect, with Ryan (27-of-44, 252 yards, 1 INT) coming up empty in the touchdown-drives department, and a mostly stagnant running game finishing with just 58 yards on 25 carries.
The defense kept the Falcons in it, sacking Dixon three times and keeping the Steelers out of the end zone during regulation, though the dam finally burst on Pittsburgh's first offensive play of the extra session.
Just after Atlanta squandered a coin toss win by punting, Rashard Mendenhall gutted the Falcons defense for a 50-yard game-winning touchdown run.
Making his first meaningful appearance in an Arizona uniform, quarterback Ken Whisenhunt at least temporarily justified Whisenhunt's decision to crown him the starter by throwing for 297 yards on 22-of-41 passing, including a game- winning 21-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald in the fourth quarter.
Though Fitzgerald (3 receptions, 43 yards) had the big highlight after sitting out the bulk of the preseason with a knee sprain, it was running mate Steve Breaston that truly opened eyes with his performance. Breaston, vying to fill the void left when the reliable Anquan Boldin was traded to Baltimore during the offseason, caught seven passes for 132 yards in the win.
He'll look to keep up the good vibes against an Atlanta team that the Cardinals last saw in the 2008 postseason. Arizona kick-started its first-ever run to the Super Bowl stage with a 30-24 victory over the Falcons at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Cardinals lead the all-time regular season series with the Falcons, 14-10, snapping a four-game losing streak against Atlanta with a 30-27 overtime win at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 16 of the 2007 season. The Falcons defeated the Cardinals four times between 1999 and 2006, with the most recent matchup in that string coming in 32-10 fashion at the Georgia Dome in 2006. The Cardinals are 0-4 in Atlanta since last winning there in the 1993 regular season finale.
The Cardinals' 30-24 home win during the 2008 playoffs is the only postseason matchup between the franchises all-time.
Cardinals head coach, Atlanta native, and Georgia Tech alumnus Ken Whisenhunt is 2-0 against the Falcons (regular season and playoffs), for whom he played 55 games as a tight end between 1985 and 1988. Atlanta's Mike Smith is 0-1 against both Whisenhunt and the Cardinals as a head coach.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Anderson didn't make Cardinals fans forget about Kurt Warner in Week 1, and history suggests he probably won't over the next 16 weeks either, but he did make some nice throws and came out a winner when all was said and done. The former Brown's favorite target was Breaston, who had a huge game on a day when Fitzgerald was mostly a non-factor. Fitzgerald caught just three passes for 15 yards in his first appearance after missing most of the preseason with a knee sprain. The receiving corps was also struck a blow when a groin injury to Early Doucet forced the team to play undrafted rookies Max Komar (2 receptions, 29 yards) and Stephen Williams a great deal. The Idaho product Komar was nearly a goat in the game, fumbling three times, though he lost just one. Doucet is a question mark for this week. In the running game, Tim Hightower (13 carries, 54 yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (7 carries, 49 yards) each contributed, though Hightower's two lost fumbles were concerning. The pair was working in the absence of Beanie Wells, who was on the shelf with a knee problem. Wells could be back in the lineup this week. The less-than-mobile Anderson was sacked just twice against the Rams.
The silver lining in the Falcons' opening-week loss was the play of the defense, which did not surrender a touchdown in the game's first 60 minutes and kept the big plays to a minimum. Prior to his 50-yard blast in overtime, Mendenhall carried 21 times for just 70 yards. Linebacker Curtis Lofton had a huge game for the Falcons, making 11 tackles and notching a sack of Dennis Dixon, while rookie first-round LB Sean Weatherspoon (8 tackles) was also a difference maker in his NFL debut. The run-stopping group could be bolstered this week by the return of defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who is eligible to return to the lineup after serving a one-game suspension for violating the NFL substance abuse policy. The job of defending Fitzgerald and Breaston this week will fall primarily to cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes (3 tackles), with ends Kroy Biermann (2 tackles) and John Abraham (2 tackles) chasing Anderson. Robinson logged six tackles in his debut with the Falcons last week, and Biermann and Anderson each notched sacks.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
All eyes will be on Ryan and the Falcons offense this week, as they attempt to turn the page following a disappointing outing in Pittsburgh. Finishing off drives will be job number one for the third-year quarterback, a directive that will be easier if wideout Michael Jenkins (shoulder) is able to shed his questionable status to play this week. With Jenkins out of the lineup against the Steelers, Ryan leaned heavily on Roddy White, who posted an NFL-best 13 catches for 111 yards in the win. If Jenkins can't go again, Harry Douglas (3 receptions, 39 yards) would likely get a second straight start. Tight end Tony Gonzalez (2 receptions, 35 yards) logged his 1,000th career reception in last week's contest. Ryan and company will need a complementary effort from the running game, which saw Michael Turner post a disappointing 19-carry, 42-yard effort against the Steelers' staunch front seven. Turner was held to 18 carries for 42 yards with a touchdown in the 2008 playoff game against Arizona. The Atlanta line allowed an acceptable two sacks against a quality Pittsburgh pass rush a week ago.
The Cardinals defense made life generally difficult for Rams rookie QB Sam Bradford last week, and the former Heisman winner probably won't have many pleasant visions of Arizona safety Adrian Wilson (2 tackles). Wilson picked Bradford off twice, sacked him once, and also blocked a field goal in the Cardinals victory. Fellow safety Kerry Rhodes (2 tackles) also had a pick in his first game with the team, though cornerback Greg Toler (13 tackles) had trouble containing Rams wideout Mark Clayton (10 receptions, 119 yards). In the pass rush, outside linebackers Joey Porter (2 tackles) and Clark Haggans (5 tackles) did not sack Bradford but combined for three hurries. The Cardinal run defense held Steven Jackson to a modest 81 yards on 22 carries, with inside linebackers Paris Lenon (8 tackles) and Daryl Washington (6 tackles) holding up pretty well along with star end Darnell Dockett (6 tackles).
Anderson nearly put up a 300-yard effort in his first game as a Cardinal, but it's important to remember that performance came against a shaky Rams defense. He doesn't figure to be as effective against a good Falcons unit, and the same goes for Breaston, though the wideout's chemistry with the QB makes him a worthwhile play. The still-recovering Fitzgerald figures to start putting up high-quality fantasy numbers sooner rather than later. There's no counting on the Arizona running backs at this stage. Cardinals kicker Jay Feely made his only field goal attempt (from 22 yards out) last week, but the ex-Falcon isn't what you would call an elite-level kicking play.
On the Atlanta side, Turner did little to inspire confidence in owners with his play last week, but is almost guaranteed to put up better numbers against a defense of a lower quality than Pittsburgh's. White is a must-start, but none of the Falcons' other offensive weapons are reliable enough to use. The defense is a decent play, however.
While the Falcons have to be frustrated to lose to a Steelers team they clearly could have beaten, the defeat did show that Atlanta is a hard-nosed team that has taken a step forward in the talent department since last year. At the same time, the Cardinals' unimpressive win in St. Louis is an indication that they have taken a step back. Start with the fact that Atlanta is a superior team to Arizona, move onto the fact that making back-to-back road trips never offers much of a competitive advantage in the NFL, and you'll come up with a victory for the Falcons.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Cardinals 16