FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta center Todd McClure painfully remembers his last visit to Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, where the Falcons also begin today's NFL regular season against the Chiefs.
"I think they had us 35-0 at halftime," he recalled as he sat inside his cubicle at the team's headquarters last week. "[Jim] Mora Jr. was our coach. It was crazy, like a big-time college atmosphere. They love their Chiefs. I hope we'll play a little better this time."
It would be tough to play worse than Atlanta did in that 56-10 loss in 2004. But to show how swiftly NFL rosters change, McClure is the only Falcons player or coach who experienced that disaster.
Mike Smith begins his fifth season as head coach with a roster that wide receiver Roddy White proclaimed "is probably the most talented group we've had to this point. We can all run. Our team's fast. I think we play fast. I think it can be special."
Smith has made each of the past four regular seasons special, all with winning records. The Falcons previously never had back-to-back winning seasons since entering the league in 1966.
What Smith hasn't done is win a playoff game. Atlanta is 0-3 in the postseason since his arrival in 2008.
"I think we're a more mature team," Smith said last week. "We've gone through five draft classes. Even though chronologically they're young, they've got a lot of snaps under their belts. I think experience is a very important factor, especially early in the season."
No one knows when the last season will be for 36-year-old future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, but it will be his first trip back to KC since the Falcons acquired him from the Chiefs in 2009.
"It's going to be a little weird being in a different locker room and coming out of that tunnel, but I'm looking forward to it," said Gonzalez, who spent 12 years with the Chiefs and still holds team records for receptions (916), receiving yards (10,940) and touchdown catches (76).
Chiefs fans may or may not be looking forward to getting their first look at a quarterback who would have been theirs if a coin flip for the third pick in the 2008 draft had come up heads instead of tails.
With the Falcons, Chiefs and Raiders tied for the third worst record (4-12) during the 2007 season, the league used a coin flip to determine overall picks three through five. Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff called tails and the Falcons chose Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan with the third pick.
Ryan has led the Falcons to a 43-19 record as a starter. KC later traded for former New England quarterback Matt Cassel, who is just 18-21 with the Chiefs.
"We had a guy who we wanted to pick if he was available, and we were very fortunate he was available," said Smith, who named Ryan a starter as a rookie and never has looked back.
Of course, more than a few Falcons fans will assuredly note the lack of dreadlocks flowing out the back of second-year wideout Julio Jones' helmet. The second-year pro cut his hair for charity, donating the locks to children who've lost their hair to cancer treatment.
"It's like those Olympic swimmers who shave their head because they don't want any resistance," Falcons receivers coach Terry Robiskie told The Associated Press last month. "We think [Julio] was going fast before. I think he can actually fly now."
But can the Falcons fly through a brutal regular-season schedule well enough to win their first playoff game since 2004, the same year as that blowout loss to the Chiefs?
"We're facing three quarterbacks in our first four games that have gone to the Pro Bowl," said Smith, who's actually facing three Pro Bowl quarterbacks out of the gate in KC's Cassel, Denver's Peyton Manning (Monday, Sept. 17) and San Diego's Philip Rivers (Sept. 23).
"But I've learned that some schedules look one way at the beginning of the season and can be completely different when you get five or six games into it. There is always an unknown when you start the regular season."
Much like the 36-year-old Gonzalez, the 35-year-old McClure understands that the unknowns grow with age.
"I know I'm a lot closer to the end than the beginning," he said. "But I also know how special we can be. Obviously, we all want a playoff win. But what we all really want is a Super Bowl ring."
And as all Falcons fans first learned in 2004, regardless of what happens today in KC, Atlanta can both reach and advance in the playoffs. Especially if Jones really can fly.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.