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By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A pair of 2011 postseason participants fielding championship aspirations will begin their title pursuits at Atlanta's Georgia Dome, where the homestanding Falcons host the Baltimore Ravens in the preseason opener for both teams.
The Ravens will be taking the field for the first time since last January's gut-wrenching 23-20 loss to New England in the AFC Championship, a game best remembered for wide receiver Lee Evans' inability to come down with a would-be go-ahead touchdown catch in the closing seconds and kicker Billy Cundiff's subsequent miss of a 32-yard field goal attempt that would have forced overtime.
Evans is no longer on the roster, while Cundiff entered training camp in a fierce competition with rookie Justin Tucker to keep his job. That battle will be one of a few to watch for the Ravens during the preseason, with the defending AFC North champions also having some positions possibly up for grabs on the offensive line.
Incumbent left tackle Bryant McKinnie will be available for Thursday's contest after passing his conditioning test last week, though the troublesome veteran will start out on the second team after an unexcused absence for the first few days of camp. Regular right-sider Michael Oher has been working in McKinnie's customary spot, with 2012 second-round pick Kelechi Osemele running with the starters on the opposite end.
With running back Bernard Pierce, Baltimore's third-round selection in April's draft, slowed by a hamstring injury, second-year pro Anthony Allen and college free agent Bobby Rainey figure to get extended looks as they try to win a job as the top reserve behind offensive star Ray Rice.
Pierce is one of a host of Ravens that won't be suiting up on Thursday, with 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs the most prominent member of the group. The disruptive outside linebacker will be sidelined until at least November after tearing his Achilles tendon during the spring, with promising understudy Paul Kruger to take over in the interim.
Center Matt Birk (back spasms) and tight end Dennis Pitta (broken right hand) are other notable names on Baltimore's expected inactive list.
Atlanta also had a bitter ending to an otherwise successful 2011 campaign, having been ousted in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs via a disappointing 24-2 loss to the eventual world champion New York Giants. The Falcons come into the preseason with a mostly set roster, but still have a few questions to be answered over the coming weeks.
Second-year man Akeem Dent is the favorite to succeed free-agent departure Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker, though the unproven youngster will be pushed by seasoned 36-year-old Mike Peterson. There's also an opening at right guard, with returnee Garrett Reynolds and rookie second-round choice Peter Konz the leading candidates.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who flashed playmaking skills in spot duty as a rookie last year, is vying with holdover Jason Snelling for the No. 2 slot on the depth chart behind Michael Turner, and could have a chance to gain the inside track in the race with Snelling questionable because of a lower leg injury.
Baltimore has won the last two meetings between the teams in preseason play, following up a 20-3 decision at the Georgia Dome in 2009 with last year's 21-7 home verdict, and holds a 5-3 edge in the exhibition series.
The Falcons have lost their last five preseason outings dating back to 2010.
08/08 13:58:09 ET
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