Lions Head South

Coming off a season in which their quarterback went to prison and their new coach deserted them, the Atlanta Falcons aren't expecting Matt Ryan and Mike Smith to bring them back to the Super Bowl.

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They're simply hoping for progress, starting when the rookie quarterback and first-year coach each make their debut in a season-opening game against the visiting Detroit Lions on Sunday.

Oddsmakers from have made Lions -3 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 70% of bets for this game have been placed on Lions –3 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

The 2007 season was a trying one for the Falcons, highlighted by Michael Vick's suspension and conviction surrounding dogfighting charges. With three different quarterbacks starting games in hopes of replacing Vick, Atlanta (4-12) stumbled to a last-place finish in the NFC South.

Adding to their problems was the Bobby Petrino saga. The Falcons hired the former Louisville coach before the season with an eye toward implementing his successful offensive philosophies in the NFL, but Petrino jumped ship after just 13 games to return to the college ranks, taking over at Arkansas.

Atlanta responded by hiring new general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Smith, the former Jacksonville defensive coordinator, to oversee the rebuilding project. That began with Ryan, the No. 3 overall draft pick out of Boston College, who appears to have eliminated the uncertainty at quarterback.

Ryan threw for 4,507 yards and 31 touchdowns last year and was named the ACC's player of the year. He was the first quarterback selected in this year's draft, and went on to beat out Chris Redman for the Falcons' starting job.

"There's no hesitancy at all," Smith said. "We told the players from day one that it was an open competition for every position on the field. Matt won the job. It would be an injustice not to play the best players and give our team the best opportunity to win."

With low expectations to start the season, there won't be much pressure on Ryan immediately. The Falcons are also hoping there won't be much physical pressure on their new quarterback, despite a questionable offensive line that features another rookie first-round pick at left tackle in Sam Baker.

Ryan will have a pair of weapons in the backfield in newcomer Michael Turner - the former backup to LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego - and backup Jerious Norwood. Receiver Roddy White could be a reliable target after breaking out for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns last year.

"He's going to have his growing pains just like anybody," center Todd McClure said of Ryan. "You look at Peyton Manning in his first year. He struggled. I just hope the fans and the media give this guy a chance. He's not going to go out there and be a Hall of Famer every game this year. He's going to have some mistakes, and we're going to help him out as much as possible."

Starting with an opponent like Detroit might also help. The Lions surprised the league with a 6-2 start last year, but still finished 7-9, allowing NFL highs of 6,042 total yards and 444 points under first-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry.

The seven victories were still their most since 2000, and going into his third year, coach Rod Marinelli is trying to improve a revamped defense that should feature several new starters.

The Lions' offense, meanwhile, seems a bit more stable. Quarterback Jon Kitna is coming off back-to-back seasons with at least 4,000 yards passing and will bring back quality targets in Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams. Detroit's running game, which will now be the focus of Marinelli's offense, will feature a pair of new faces, as the team signed former Bengals standout Rudi Johnson this week to complement rookie Kevin Smith.

Johnson missed five games with a hamstring problem last year and was waived by the Bengals last Saturday, but he topped 1,300 yards each season from 2004-06 and said he'll be ready for Sunday's game.

"As soon as I finish talking to you guys, I'm going to bury myself in the playbook," Johnson said Tuesday. "I want to be able to contribute to this team as soon as possible."

The Lions were just 2-6 on the road last year, but they won their most recent visit to Atlanta 17-10 on Oct. 10, 2004. The teams have alternated wins in losses in their last seven meetings overall, with Detroit winning the most recent matchup 30-14 at home during its 3-13 season in 2006.

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