ATLANTA - The Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins took unlikely leaps from the ranks of ridiculed to respected as the NFL's biggest turnaround teams last year.
Now they have to prove they can do it again.
Miami, which improved from 1-15 to 11-5, will open its season today at Atlanta, which jumped from 4-12 to 11-5. Each team was led by first-year coaches, Tony Sparano in Miami and Mike Smith in Atlanta.
The Dolphins matched the biggest turnaround in league history with their 10-game improvement while winning the AFC East. The Falcons achieved their seven-game improvement with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan starting every game. They were the two most improved teams in the NFL.
Each team's feel-good story ended with first-round playoff losses, leaving a hunger for 2009.
"We're still hunting," said Miami outside linebacker Joey Porter. "People can hunt for us, but we're still hunting, too. We haven't sat back and gotten lazy about anything. We weren't given any special privileges for winning the division last year; we lost our only playoff game. That taste still sits in guys' mouths."
With success comes expectations for more wins. That's not a bad thing, according to Ryan, even if some players seem reluctant to part with the underdog role that worked so well last season.
"I think if we're gonna be the kind of football team that we want to be long-term, you have to be able to deal with that," Ryan said. "You have to expect to win week in and week out. We're not going to sneak up on anybody. It's different from last year in that respect. But I think everybody embraces that challenge."
The Falcons are expected to be strong on offense. Ryan has three Pro Bowl weapons: running back Michael Turner, who set a team record with 1,699 yards rushing last year; receiver Roddy White, who set a team record with 1,382 yards receiving; and Tony Gonzalez, who has the most catches, yards receiving and touchdown catches of any tight end in NFL history.
The Falcons also boast Jerious Norwood, a speed threat as Turner's backup, and receivers Michael Jenkins, Marty Booker and Brian Finneran.
Gonzalez, the longtime Kansas City star, says he doesn't have to be the top threat in Atlanta.
"I've been around long enough," Gonzalez said. "I've caught a lot of balls and had my heyday. It doesn't mean that I can't go out there and still perform. I feel just as good as ever. But at the same time it doesn't matter to me. There's a lot of players on this offense that can do well, that can hurt you.
"For me, go ahead and do it. Let's keep these chains moving. That's all I'm worried about, and getting a victory."
Even as Ryan passed for 3,440 yards on his way to being voted NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, defenses stacked the line against the Falcons, especially in short-yardage and red-zone situations. That could change with Gonzalez added as a new threat across the middle.
The Falcons might need a strong offense to compensate for a defense that ranked 24th in the league last year and had more problems in the preseason. Chris Houston and Brent Grimes are the starting cornerbacks, but Atlanta acquired Tye Hill from the Rams on Sept. 1, and signed eighth-year veteran Brian Williams.
The defense lost five starters from 2008, including run-stopping tackle Grady Jackson, longtime linebacker Keith Brooking and safety Lawyer Milloy.
Run defense is a concern. Rookie Peria Jerry, a first-round pick from Mississippi, will take over for the massive Jackson as Atlanta braces for a Miami running game led by Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.
"We got significantly younger this year and we are going to be playing a lot of players that have three years or less experience," said Smith, the 2008 NFL Coach of the Year.
The Falcons also are wary of the Dolphins' wildcat package, with Brown taking direct snaps. Brown completed two passes for 41 yards and a touchdown last season, forcing defenses to respect his dual-threat potential.
"We made a decision last year after starting poorly that our offense needed something to put their arms around, and we also needed to get the best players that we could get on the field at the same time," Sparano said.
"Getting Ricky and Ronnie on the field at the same time with (Chad) Pennington was positive for us, and it just kind of took off, to be honest with you. Our offense started to develop a little personality with that package, but it's a very small part of what we do."
Pennington, who signed with Miami after eight years with the New York Jets, passed for 3,653 yards with 19 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. The Dolphins drafted quarterback Pat White, giving Miami another run-pass threat, particularly in the wildcat, and causing more stress for Smith and his staff.
Turner says he knows teams will be looking to see if Atlanta, which has never had back-to-back winning seasons, can prove its success in 2008 was no fluke.
"I won't say it's pressure," Turner said. "It's just that we want to build on last year, we want to capitalize on what we did right last year and just keep doing it and keep rising until we reach our goals.
"We have to just keep playing our style of football. We know other teams have some film on us now. We have to be sound on our techniques and things like that and everything will be fine."
SideBar: Dolphins at Falcons
When: Today, 1 p.m.
Where: Georgia Dome