ATLANTA -- It would be easy for the Atlanta Falcons to take all the pre-game hype leading into this afternoon's season opener against Minnesota personally.
But the players, many who were part of the team's NFC championship a year ago, find more humor than insult in the fact that few people living outside the Interstate 285 perimeter believe they can beat the Vikings inside the Georgia Dome.
Kickoff is at 4:15 p.m. (Fox 54). "Do we have to prove anything against the Vikings? For who? For what?" asked strong safety Eugene Robinson. "We were an underdog in every big game that we played last year and we made it all the way to the Super Bowl."
"It's not about who's the underdog and who's favored," said veteran middle linebacker Jessie Tuggle. "It's about what happens on game day. We'll see, we'll see."
Las Vegas has installed Minnesota as a four-point favorite today, despite the fact that the Vikings are on the road and playing a team that not only eliminated them 30-27 in overtime in the NFC Championship seven months ago, but also outgained them in total yardage, 427-356.
To make matters worse, the sports books in Las Vegas have posted 4-to-1 odds for the Vikings to win Super Bowl XXXIV in January, while the Falcons are as low as 20-to-1.
"It doesn't make any difference," said Atlanta coach Dan Reeves. "We have got to go out there and win the game. I would say it is very difficult for people to really know what you have. Look at the preseason. We both struggled at 2-2. They haven't had a really good preseason record, but they also haven't played very well either -- the same as we have.
"I'm more concerned about how we play. If we play the way we are capable of playing, I like our chances. It's never bothered me. People predict. The thing that bothers me is they come awful close most of the time."
Atlanta was 16-3 a year ago, losing 34-19 to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII. The Falcons have two new starters on offense -- left guard Ed Hallen and wide receiver Chris Calloway -- and two new starters on defense -- linebacker Keith Brookings and safety Marty Carter.
Hallen beat Calvin Collins in training camp to earn his job, while Calloway's role has become the focus of most preseason questions.
Tony Martin, who led the team in receptions and yardage a year ago, was cut after he was charged with laundering drug money. Although he eventually was found not guilty, the team couldn't afford to gamble his $400,000 signing bonus on the result of the trial. They signed Calloway from the New York Giants.
Calloway admittedly doesn't possess Martin's breakaway speed or physical prowess, but hearing that Atlanta no longer has a deep threat clearly bothers the 10-year veteran.
"I am a complete receiver," he said. "I've heard all that deep threat stuff, and I don't even listen to it any more. There are a lot of ways to get open."
Brooking, a second-year player from Georgia Tech, takes over for Cornelius Bennett, who wasn't re-signed during the off-season. And Carter, a free agent signed away from the Chicago Bears, fills in for William White, who also wasn't re-signed.
Brooking and Carter make the defense, which led the NFL last year in forcing turnovers, a bit quicker and a lot tougher.
"We look around the league and see a lot of other teams getting all the hype, and that's all right," Brooking said. "You've got to take something like that personally. I don't think we're getting respect right now. It gives you more drive to prove them wrong. If not, there's something wrong with you. I feel we need to go out and earn that respect.
"Minnesota is just another opportunity for us. They want revenge from last year because they think they deserved the victory. If they deserved it, they would have gotten it that day. We took it away from them. It's not that we wanted it more, it's just the way the ball bounced that day."
The Vikings, who were 16-2 last season, bring back an offense that broke NFL record for points in a season at 556. The connection between quarterback Randall Cunningham and wide receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter is well-documented, but many of the Falcons say they believe the key to victory is keeping running back Robert Smith wrapped up.
"If you forget their running back, Smith can run for 165-170 yards easy," Buchanan said. "To me, that's the key."
Minnesota coach Dennis Green agreed.
"The teams that win are the teams that run the ball," he said. "To win championships, you have to run the ball and stop the run."
In the Vikings' case, that means stopping All-Pro tailback Jamal Anderson.
After running for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns on an NFL-record 410 attempts, Anderson missed the first two weeks of training camp in a contract dispute. He finally got a five-year, $32 million deal and now is convinced Atlanta will pick up where it left off.
"It took us a tremendous amount of work to get where we were last year," Anderson said. "The nucleus of this team is still here and we know if we step on the field and play the way we are capable of playing and trying to duplicate some of the plays last year, we will find ourselves in pretty good surroundings at the end of the season. That's our attitude right now."
And what about the underdog role?
"Nothing's changed," Anderson said. "They have the same personnel, same situation. Let's be frank: a lot of people thought it was a fluke, or all those things that happened in the game were just improbable and they can't occur again. It's a position we're very used to being in. We're used to being the underdogs. We are used to being a team people don't have high expectations of. It's fine with us. We'll just show up Sunday and play."
And with success comes the Dirty Bird.
"There's not a new wrinkle in the Dirty Bird this year," Anderson said with a wink. "It's a whole new dance. September 12, Georgia Dome. Be there."
Don Coble at email@example.com
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