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By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A pair of playoffs teams angling to take the next step square off in Dixie on Thursday when the high-powered Atlanta Falcons welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons finished the 2012 season with a 14-4 overall record and hosted the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history thanks in large part to one of the NFL's most dynamic offenses, a group which is not only back in tact, it has actually been upgraded.
Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan, fresh off signing a monster contract extension last month with $59 million worth of guaranteed money, and the best receiving duo in the game, Roddy White and Julio Jones, were always going to be back but by convincing future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez to put off retirement for another year, and replacing the descending Michael Turner with ex-Rams running back Steven Jackson, the Falcons now look poised for another big season in 2013.
Offensive tackle could be an issue, however, because Sam Baker has a history of back problems on the left side and veteran Tyson Clabo, a solid, if unspectacular player, was released. Projected Clabo replacement Mike Johnson suffered a dislocated left ankle and fractured fibula in practice earlier this week and is gone for the foreseeable future while Lamar Holmes, a third-round pick in 2012, is no sure thing.
Defensively, things are murkier for the Falcons. The aging but always productive John Abraham is gone, replaced by former New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, a talented but far less consistent player. In the draft, the Falcons tried to rebuild the cornerback position after releasing Dunta Robinson and losing Brent Grimes in free agency to Miami. Atlanta nabbed Desmond Trufant in the first round and supplemented that by selecting Robert Alford in the second.
"Well, it'll be a great time for us to go through a true evaluation process where we are playing the game of football," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said when talking about the preseason opener. "There's no limitation on the quarterback not being live, so it'll be an opportunity for our guys to go out and play. So it's going to be fun to watch these guys and see how they respond to tough situations."
The Bengals have returned to HBO's acclaimed Hard Knocks television series this summer so they will be under the microscope.
Cincinnati remains a talented bunch aiming to move forward and garner some postseason success. Finding a consistent complement to Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green as well as a more explosive outside running threat could help quarterback Andy Dalton, who has some limitations due to his pedestrian arm strength.
Mike Brown got the best tight end in the draft in Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert as well as a back who may give the running game that needed juice in Giovani Bernard.
"Both guys are young talented players, and they really have great skills," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said when talking about Eifert and Bernard. "They're going to help us in a lot of ways. They ought to have great opportunities to win the one-on-one matchups, and that's what you need. Football at times, comes down to you got to win some one-on-ones. You got to keep the sticks moving and so forth. And we think these are guys that can help us do that."
The Bengals defense welcomes former Defensive Player of the Year and ex- Steeler James Harrison, who figures to man the strong side linebacker spot, along with Reggie Nelson, who will be asked to solidify one of the safety spots.
The Falcons and Bengals have met 11 times in the pre season, with Atlanta holding a slim 6-5 edge in the all-time series. The two clubs last met during the 2012 preseason, a game which the Bengals won 31-17 at the Georgia Dome.
"It's going to be fun," Lewis said when talking about the game. "It's the next step in the process. We've been practicing now for, it will be 15 days by the time we get to that point, and guys are anxious to play. You've got guys fighting for jobs, fighting to play more or start or whatever, so it's a good opportunity for them to get out and show what they got."
08/07 12:22:43 ET
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