ATLANTA - Jim Mora often says he was hired to coach the Atlanta Falcons, not their checkered past.
Comparisons will be hard to avoid, however, when the Falcons play their season opener Sept. 12 in San Francisco.
Mora, who worked the last seven years as a 49ers assistant, will return to face the team that's won 10 straight home games against Atlanta and 15 of 19 since 1978.
"It's always exciting to go back to a place where you spent time," Mora said Wednesday. "But my focus is the same no matter who or where we play."
The 2004 schedule has the Falcons playing their first three games against NFC West opponents.
St. Louis, which crushed Atlanta 36-0 in a Week 6 Monday night game last year, visits the Georgia Dome Sept. 19.
Arizona, under new head coach Dennis Green, comes to town the following week. The Falcons don't play an NFC South opponent until Oct. 3, when they travel to Carolina.
After last year's debacle against the Rams ended as the lowest-rated Monday night game in league history, Atlanta has just one prime-time affair - a Saturday home matchup against the Panthers Dec. 18.
Mora was in his third year as defensive coordinator when the 49ers won the 2001 season opener over Atlanta in overtime. Now 42, Mora, the third-youngest NFL head coach behind Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden and Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio, won't face an AFC team until Oct. 17 when the San Diego Chargers play at the Dome.
"We have an opportunity to get some firm ground in our conference at the start of the season," Mora said.
The Falcons are coming off a 5-11 season during which owner Arthur Blank fired Dan Reeves as head coach and star quarterback Michael Vick missed the first 11 games with a broken right leg.
Atlanta has road trips to Kansas City Oct. 24 and Denver Oct. 31. The Falcons end the regular season at Seattle Jan. 2.
WESTERN HOLIDAY: Christmas Day will be a holiday for most of the NFL - but not for three of the four teams in the AFC West.
The NFL schedule, released Wednesday, has two Christmas games - Oakland at Kansas City and Denver at Tennessee. They will begin at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. EST, respectively.
The contests will follow a Christmas Eve game featuring two NFC Central teams: Green Bay at Minnesota, starting at 3 p.m.
The highlights of the opening week were announced two weeks ago with Indianapolis opening the season at New England on Thursday, Sept. 9 in a replay of last season's AFC title game.
The first Monday night game will be Green Bay at Carolina, which lost to the Patriots in last season's Super Bowl.
As usual, the Thanksgiving games will be in Detroit and Dallas.
The Lions host the Colts at 12:30 p.m., then Chicago visits the Cowboys in a game starting at 4:15 p.m.
The schedule was announced for the first time on the NFL Network, which began broadcasting last November.
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