Early Bird Report: NFL.com picks Falcons in close game vs. Seahawks

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The Atlanta Falcons need to get out to a fast start in 2020, and that begins on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle started the 2019 season with a 7-2 record, which helped them reach the postseason even after faltering slightly down the stretch.

The Falcons, meanwhile, reversed that approach and finished the year as hot as any team despite falling out of playoff contention before their bye week. NFL.com Gregg Rosenthal likes Atlanta's momentum to carry over into its season opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He picks the Falcons to win a very close 24-23 game against the Seahawks.

"Slow starts have plagued Pete Carroll and his former assistant Dan Quinn," Rosenthal writes. "There's no telling how an actual plague-like virus will impact that, but one of them gets to start 1-0 on Sunday. This will be our first peak at whether the Seahawks have any interest in letting Russ cook with a higher volume of throws earlier in games this season and whether Carroll finally moves off his base defense of three linebackers after a strong camp by expected nickel corner Marquise Blair. The Falcons hope their defensive improvement under coordinator Raheem Morris late last season carries over, with an ideal first matchup to do so. This reconfigured Seahawks offensive line looks like birdseed for Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley and sneaky good free-agent pickup Dante Fowler."

Within the game, itself, the Falcons will seek a fast start. When they played the Seahawks last season, the Falcons found themselves trailing 24-0 before halftime. Although they mounted a furious second-half rally, outscoring Seattle 20-3, it wasn't enough to overcome that first-half deficit. Sound familiar?

For both the good and the bad of the 2019 season, the Falcons say they are focused on the year that is in front of them. They have their first chance to create different fortunes for themselves this weekend.

2020 QB power rankings

No position in the NFL garners more debate and discussion than quarterbacks, and for good reason. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has long been one of the best on the field, winning the league's MVP award in 2016 and the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2008. Entering the 2020 season, however, CBSSports.com writer Cody Benjamin has him just inside the top 10 at the No. 9 spot.

"The interception bug was back in 2019, but you pretty much always know what you're going to get with Ryan," Benjamin writes. "He's also had an on-and-off leap into MVP-caliber numbers as of late, and 2020 would mark an "on" year. With his receivers, it's possible."

How each NFL team can reach Super Bowl

On paper, the Falcons at least have the talent to make a push for the postseason. They face a tough schedule and will need an improvement in performance from some key players this fall, but there is a path there. Heck, there's even a path for the Falcons to reach the Super Bowl, which Bill Barnwell outlined in a piece for ESPN.

"This year's Falcons are right around where that 2016 team was before it broke out," Barnwell writes. "With five first-rounders on their offensive line and 10 on offense altogether, the Falcons could hope for an offensive resurgence with Ryan, who would need a return to form from running back Todd Gurley and a breakout year from tight end Hayden Hurst. That previous Falcons team got a huge season from Vic Beasley Jr., and with Beasley now in Tennessee, coach Dan Quinn could rely upon another former Ram in pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. as a possible NFL sack leader."

NFL players to watch in Week 1

For the first time since the Super Bowl ended in February, we can talk about on-field matchups for NFL teams. Pro Football Focus dedicated an entire article detailing the top players to watch for each game around the league on Sunday. In Atlanta's game against Seattle, PFF's Ben Linsey says he's going to keep a close eye on the Falcons' young corners against the Seahawks' wide receivers, new Seattle safety Jamal Adams and Atlanta's new pass rusher, Dante Fowler.

"Fowler will be an interesting player to watch in Atlanta this season," Linsey writes. "He has improved in each of his four NFL seasons, but that improvement has only gotten him to a 72.0 PFF grade in 2019. His 67 pressures and 11.5 sacks both stick out as impressive marks, but over 50% of his pressures in 2019 were labeled as "clean-up" or "unblocked, meaning it may be harder for him to repeat that performance in 2020. Still, Fowler profiles as a nice upgrade over what Atlanta got from Vic Beasley Jr. last season, and he has a soft matchup in this one against Seattle's offensive line, particularly if lined up over right tackle."

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