Sunday will be the ninth time the Falcons and the Panthers have faced in the Mike Smith era, but it's also the third time the two teams have met with Ron Rivera providing the head coaching direction for the Panthers.
Smith and the Falcons have a 6-2 record over the Panthers since 2008 and are 2-0 against Rivera and the Panthers. Just when Carolina thinks it may be figuring out something Atlanta is going to do, especially on offense, the Falcons go and change coordinators and start the 2012 season with one of the most high-octane units in the league.
While the players are the same on offense for Atlanta, the scheme has been tweaked and it's getting the most out of an impressive collection of talent. It's the kind of talent that is keeping Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis' blood pressure up.
"It's been extremely stressful (preparing for Atlanta)," Davis said Wednesday. "Whenever you have a team that has the offensive weapons that Atlanta has and then you look the fact that they have those two dynamic receivers on the outside to go along with the ageless wonder Tony Gonzalez. He's been playing so long and still getting it done. Nine catches last week.
"Then you have Michael Turner and some of the running backs that you have in the backfield, I think they present a huge challenge, just being able to have that balance. It's going to be a true test for our defense. It's another test and another opportunity to go out and prove ourselves."
Atlanta's offense is tied for third in the NFL with 31.3 points per game. The offense is led by Matt Ryan, who in his fifth year looks to have come into his own and is getting (very) early-season MVP talk. Despite new blood coordinating the offense, Rivera thinks Ryan is the real key to Atlanta's quick start.
"I think Matt Ryan's playing about as well as you can," Rivera said. "You see some differences, but you see a lot of similarities in terms of the way he's playing. He was solid and he's picked up right where they left off. He's as solid as they come. I'm not sure it really matters who the coordinator is as much as it matters how they're executing. Dirk Koetter does a nice job keeping things to the max benefit in terms of using Matt's skills."
Rivera said there are some differences in what he's seen last year to this for the Atlanta offense, but the constant has been Ryan and the continued upward arc that his career has taken. Additionally, there are the playmakers, and he still thinks Tony Gonzalez is one of them.
In fact, Rivera, who game planned against Gonzalez when the two were in the AFC West together, isn't crying over the pending retirement of one of the game's greats, a player he has to face twice a year.
"The sooner, the better," Rivera said about Gonzalez' departure.