KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Brian Baldinger, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 32nd meeting. Atlanta trails 9-22, but the Falcons left Ford Field last Thanksgiving with a 20-point victory that brought an end to the Detroit career of Steve Mariucci, a mentor of Mora and Knapp during their days together in San Francisco. Vick passed for a career-high 332 yards against the Lions in 2002. That Detroit team, however, bears no resemblance, for better or worse, to his bunch. The Lions' fickle team president, Matt Millen, has fired two head coaches and parted company with an interim boss since he convinced the Ford family to hire Rod Marinelli 10 months ago.
*2006 RANKINGS: Falcons: offense 6th (1st rush, 31st pass); defense 18th (9th rush, 27th pass). Lions: offense 13th (30th rush, 5th pass); defense 25th (16th rush, 29th pass)
PREDICTION: Falcons 27-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons lead the league with an average of 210.9 rushing yards per game, 25 percent more than the second-best team. Despite Falcons QB Michael Vick throwing seven touchdowns in his past two games, the Lions' main priority clearly remains to stop Vick and RB Warrick Dunn on the ground. Unfortunately, Detroit's respectable run defense will be severely short-handed without suspended DT Shaun Rogers and injured DT Dan Cody. The Lions' best defense might be their own running game, which offensive coordinator Mike Martz has complemented by incorporating RB Kevin Jones significantly as a receiver in the short passing game. The Lions have to be able to keep the ball, let their defense rest and not lose the turnover battle (QB Jon Kitna has nine interceptions already). If Atlanta gets a lead, it will turn the Lions one-dimensional and run away and hide.
FAST FACTS: Falcons: TE Alge Crumpler needs two touchdown receptions to break his career high of six set in 2004. ... WR Ashley Lelie's 32 receptions of at least 25 yards since 2004 is tied with Washington WR Santana Moss for most in the league. Lions: WR Mike Furrey has 37 receptions in seven games after entering the season with a combined 21 in his three-year career. ... Kitna's 63.3 completion percentage is on pace to break the franchise record for quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Chad Johnson's bald head failed to convince Roy Williams that Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall is an elite player.
Williams, whom Detroit drafted one pick ahead of Hall two years ago, hardly made flattering remarks when asked this week about his opponent.
"He's a zone corner," Williams said. "He's not a man-to-man, shutdown corner that everybody expects him to be. He's a good player, a heck of a talent. I would have him on my team any day, but everybody pumps him up, and in my opinion (Green Bay's) Al Harris is the best corner in the league.
"Al Harris can talk to me because he's a man-to-man player. A lot of guys in the league need help over the top, but they're still talking."
Hall, who never met an argument he wouldn't take, felt no need to remind his audience that Johnson had shaved off his peroxide-blonde Mohawk after Atlanta left Cincinnati with a 29-27 victory last week.
Regarding Williams, Hall scoffed.
"I'm a Pro Bowler -- he's not," Hall said. "I'm considered one of the best at what I do -- he's not. So, all that other stuff, we'll see on Sunday. I went over there last year and had a pretty good game against those guys, so I'm not too worried about any of those guys as far as them saying that I'm not a good corner and I need help over the top."
Hall beat Williams decisively when the Falcons left Ford Field with a 20-point win last Thanksgiving. On the opening drive, Hall was covering Williams on a deep route down the right sideline when he saw that Joey Harrington had put the ball up for grabs.
Similar to the interception he made seven weeks ago against Tampa Bay, when Hall ran past Joey Galloway and intercepted Chris Simms in the Atlanta end zone, the former Virginia Tech standout beat Williams to the ball with an over-the-shoulder basket catch.
The only difference in the plays was that Hall ran back the pick against the Buccaneers 57 yards; he returned the interception against Detroit 34.
Williams did catch a touchdown pass for the Lions' only score, but it came on a fourth-quarter ball that deflected off Hall and stayed in the air long enough for Keion Carpenter to tip it toward the Detroit wideout.
Jon Kitna has heard his Lions teammates talk about how the team's record doesn't reflect its ability.
He's not buying it.
"What kind of grade would I give this team coming out of the bye? That's easy," he said Thursday. "Our grade is 1-6. Are there positives? Of course there are, but the only thing that matters at the end of the day is whether you won the game or not. We've played seven games, and we've only won one."
Detroit has had a chance to win in the fourth quarter of five of the six losses but hasn't been able to make plays down the stretch. The Lions have been outscored 64-30 in the fourth quarter this season.
The Lions haven't exactly been gangbusters at the start of games, either, with a 54-30 margin against them in the first quarter. Despite their ugly record, they have outscored opponents 72-71 in the middle two quarters.
"Obviously, we have to find a way to make plays in the fourth quarter so that we can finish off games," Kitna said. "But we also have to start putting more pressure on teams at the beginning of games. There have been a couple games that we could have put away early, and we didn't. That's come back to hurt us."
Lions offensive guru Mike Martz thinks that the early and late struggles will get easier as time goes on.
"To win in this league, you have to start fast and you have to finish fast," Martz said. "I think that having continuity of personnel will help with that. We're getting better -- it just has to all work itself out."