In what many consider to be the most important preseason game of them all, the third preseason game, an NFC favorite and an AFC hopeful meet up in Tennessee to match wits and find out exactly what it is they've got before another round of cuts.
The Falcons came very close to making their first Super Bowl appearance since 1996 last year, but fell just short against the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Though they retained tight end Tony Gonzalez for one more year, the team did part with veterans Michael Turner, Dunta Robinson, and John Abraham. With a number of new starters on offense and defense, Atlanta will look a bit different but should still have the firepower to make the playoffs thanks to the recently-extended Matt Ryan and his receiving counterparts.
The Titans have not been as fortunate.
Tennessee is coming off of a disappointing 6-10 season that includes an 0-5 record against 2012 playoff teams. The Titans will get another, and perhaps final, look at third-year quarterback Jake Locker as they determine whether or not he really is the answer to becoming the team's franchise QB. Can Locker step up to the plate on Saturday at home and win over the coaches and fans again? Or will Atlanta come into the Music City and make him sing a different tune?
Here's a closer look at the Falcons at Titans preseason game.
Meet the Titans
Tennessee was a sleeper team headed into last year, but the reason you would designate a team as a "sleeper" is because there's also a good chance they will be bad. After going 9-7 in Mike Munchak's first season as an NFL head coach, the Titans slipped to 6-10 and were outscored by 141 points. Nobody in the league allowed as many points as Tennessee did. What did the Titans do during the offseason to improve the defense?
Not as much as you might have expected.
Tennessee signed safety Bernard Pollard, now with his fourth team in the last six years and drafted cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson and linebacker Zaviar Gooden in the third round of the draft. However, with the tenth overall pick they selected... a guard. Chance Warmack could become an outstanding player immediately, but how much better does he make the Titans right now? Rookie receiver Justin Hunter could be one of the most athletic first-year players, but has been described as "immature' by some.
Watch to see how Locker performs, how well the relationship is with Hunter and second-year receiver Kendall Wright, and watch how good Warmack can block. If it's possible to watch that part of the game and be excited.
Meet the Falcons
There is likely a lot more to get excited about on the Atlanta side.
Ryan joined the "quarterbacks with contracts that total over $100 million" club this year and there's a good reason for that: Ryan led the league in completion percentage last year and the number one seed Falcons made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. His 56 career regular season wins is the most ever for a quarterback's first five years in the league.
He has to give some credit for that to teammates Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Gonzalez of course. Longtime teammate Turner has been replaced by Steven Jackson, who parted ways with the Rams this year. To replace the corner Robinson, the team drafted Desmond Trufant out of Washington in the first round and Robert Alford of Southeastern Louisiana in the second. To replace Abraham, the team signed veteran Osi Umenyiora from the Giants, a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
Look for all the veterans to get a little more playing time on Saturday as they warm up for the regular season.
Local Takes: Tennessee
The SBNation blog Music City Miracles asks the questions "Will the Titans have depth?":
After watching Akeem Ayers and Kendall Wright get carted off the field, I realized Akeem Ayers may be the one irreplaceable player on the roster. As high as I am on Kendall Wright, the drop off won't be huge to the next receiver to step up. Conversely, I don't think there's anyone on the roster with Akeem Ayers abilities and skill set. He's the move-able chess piece for Gregg Williams and Jerry Gray on this defense that can play linebacker and defensive end at will. An injury to Ayers would expose the Titans lack of depth at that particular position.
Local Takes: Atlanta
Dave Choate at The Falcoholic takes a closer look at a report that the rookie Alford has not allowed a single catch in his two preseason games:
This is a 24-year-old small school prospect who was widely penciled in to the fourth cornerback job this season, and he's already showing excellent coverage skills. Even if it's come against backups, in preseason games, it shows what kind of upside he has. The Falcons will find ways to get him on the field to take advantage of his superior athleticism, so it's not like he'll be buried.
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It is difficult to know what to expect in any preseason game, but at least in this case it is considered to be the biggest "dress rehearsal" of them all in the third week. So you can expect to see starters for at least one of half of the game and that gives us a better idea of what we will be seeing on Saturday.
In the Titans favor is playing at home and the fact that they won't have to see Ryan, White, Gonzalez, and Jones for more than a half or so of football. That could give them an advantage in the second half and an opportunity to catch up, but they likely will need to catch up.
The Falcons look like the far better team. They have the better quarterback, the better weapons on offense, and the better defense. If this was a regular season game, I would expect the Falcons to win by at least two touchdowns. I guess since it's the preseason, we can cut that down a little.
Falcons 24, Titans 21
The folks at OddsShark.com currently have the Falcons as three point favorites in Tennessee.
In their final preseason tuneup before cutting down to the 53-man roster, the Falcons return to the Georgia Dome to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars on August 29. Meanwhile, the Titans travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings that same day.