NFL Week 1: The Games You Can't Afford to Miss

ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First and 10" column takes you around the league, with a look at the best game of the week, followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 1 of the 2006 season.

First … Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers

Despite a tough schedule, the Panthers are favored by many experts to go to the Super Bowl. And it's deserved.

The team is loaded. They added dependable wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to balance the distribution of passes on the other side of Steve Smith. Their backfield is deeper with DeAngelo Williams behind DeShaun Foster. The defensive line has a much better rotation with Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis added to the already good mix of tackles. Kris Jenkins is back to his dominating self in the interior of the defense. Plus, John Fox is a great coach.

But the Falcons always have given the Panthers a hard time. It took the Panthers three years of drafting speed at cornerback and linebacker to compete with the Falcons and Michael Vick. The Falcons dominated the Panthers even when it appeared the Panthers were the more talented team. From 2000 to 2004, the Falcons beat the Panthers in nine out of 10 games.

By finding cornerbacks who could run with the Falcons receivers, Fox had the freedom to come at Vick and contain him with the blitz. That talent adjustment allowed the Panthers to sweep the Falcons last year, 24-6 and 44-11.

This year we get to see right away if Vick and Jim Mora can make their own adjustments to the Panthers defense. Quietly, the Falcons-Panthers battles have become one of the most heated rivalries in the league. Now that the Panthers have found a way to beat the Falcons, it officially can be called a rivalry.

Vick's had a good offseason. He's worked well with former Panthers assistant Bill Musgrave, his quarterback coach. Vick has worked well with receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins in offseason practices, and the addition of Ashley Lelie gives him more weapons.

But will it all work Sunday? The Panthers should be the ultimate test. For the Panthers, playing at home makes it almost a must-win game. They still have the momentum and confidence from going to the NFC championship game last season. But losing a home game in Week 1 would be a major setback.

It's also an important game for the Falcons. The biggest concern this preseason was the team's inability to stop the run. In response, the Falcons signed massive defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who should help. They've also added strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who is a hard hitter. John Abraham will add pass-rushing ability at defensive end.

Things are already getting heated between the teams. Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall is already calling out Smith in print. Smith was called out last year by Vikings cornerback Fred Smoot and Smith burned him for more than 200 yards. Smith is bothered by hamstring problems, and is listed as questionable, but there is no way he'll miss the chance to respond to a challenge by a division rival.

The NFC South is deep, with the Panthers, Falcons and Buccaneers all having legitimate playoff hopes. It's early, but what happens in September could go along way toward deciding the division winner. The Panthers face the Falcons and Bucs in the first three weeks. While the Falcons follow their game this week against the Panthers with the Bucs in Week 2.

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