ATLANTA - Before every game, Jason Elam envisions himself lining up for a game-winning field goal.
That scenario played out plenty of times with the Denver Broncos. Come today, he'll imagine beating the team where he established himself as one of the best clutch kickers in NFL history.
Nothing personal. It's just that Elam now kicks for the Atlanta Falcons, his new team after 15 years in the Mile High City.
'It's just weird. That's the best way to describe it,' he said. 'I was watching film on those guys, seeing my buddies on film from this side, learning how we're going to attack them. It is very different.'
During his time in Denver, Elam tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal, scored at least 100 points every year and had at least 15 game-winning kicks in the closing minutes. He parted from the Broncos on good terms in what was largely a financial move, even helping the kicker who replaced him, Matt Prater.
Elam still roots for Denver - well, except for this week, when the first-place Broncos (5-4) face the surprising Falcons (6-3), a playoff contender in what was supposed to be a major rebuilding year.
'I'm excited for them,' Elam said of his former squad. 'I think they'll win their division. They're a talented team. They're going to be a real tough team to deal with if they get hot.'
Still, old loyalties won't get in the way of Elam yearning for the chance to beat the Broncos. He's already had his first game-winning kick for the
Falcons, a 48-yarder on the final play of an improbable victory over Chicago, and he hopes for a repeat against Denver.
'Every kicker dreams of the last-second field goal,' he said. 'I already went over it in my head for this week. I've been looking at a lot of different scenarios that might come up. That would storybook.'
Elam has made 19 of 21 field goals for the Falcons, bringing stability to a position that was shaky the last two seasons. Both times, Atlanta turned to ancient Morten Andersen to finish the year, dumping those who won the job coming out of training camp.
Prater was that guy in 2007. He was cut after missing three of his first four attempts and wound up in Denver late in the season, getting a head-start on replacing Elam. The relationship could have been uncomfortable, but Elam didn't mind working with the guy being groomed as his successor.
'It was probably the right thing to do, and I liked him,' Elam said. 'He had a real humility about him, so it made it a lot easier to want to help him. Physically, he doesn't need any help. It's just more of the mental side of it.'
Prater learned his lessons well. He's made 16 of 19 attempts this season, including all five tries from at least 50 yards.
Not that he's ready to say he's filled Elam's shoes.
'It's only halfway through the year,' said Prater, whose longest kick was from 56 yards. 'I've got 15 more years to go if I want to compare myself to Jason in any sense.'
He still appreciates the way Elam took him under his wing last season, and he's been able to feed off the burden of trying to replace a Denver icon.
'The added pressure helps some because he did so well for so long,' Prater said. 'I try to at least be close to what he's done.'
While Elam vs. the Broncos is certainly a compelling sidebar, both teams have more important things to worry about than divided loyalties and old friendships.
After winning just four games in 2007 - a season that will always be remembered for Michael Vick heading off to prison and Bobby Petrino slipping out of town with three games left - the Falcons started over with a new coach, a new general manager, a new quarterback and one of the youngest rosters in the league.
Amazingly, they're just one game out of first in the NFC South, gaining more confidence with each passing week.
'You can feel the momentum starting to build,' center Todd McClure said. 'You can see, on both offense and defense, we're getting better as this thing goes along. If we continue to put wins back-to-back, who knows where this thing might go.'
The Falcons have won four of their last five and are a perfect 4-0 at the Georgia Dome. Three of those home wins were by double-digit margins, and a city that once worshipped Vick is warming to the idea of having another entertaining team, even if it doesn't include No. 7.
'Slowly but surely, we're getting to fill up those seats,' safety Lawyer Milloy said. 'We've had a great environment, but it can get better. As a team, I think we're earning back the loyalty from our fan base, and with each other. We're really starting to believe we can do good things as long as we come to work every day, work hard and believe in each other.'
For the second week in a row, the Falcons will face a prolific passing attack, this one led by strong-armed Jay Cutler. He leads the AFC with 2,616 yards, taking on an even greater role in the offense after a rash of injuries at running back.
Last Sunday, the Falcons surrendered 422 yards passing to Drew Brees of the Saints, but the bulk of those came in the fourth quarter after Atlanta had built a commanding lead. More telling were these numbers: three interceptions, one returned 95 yards for a touchdown, and 15 passes broken up.
Elam isn't the only ex-Bronco on the Falcons roster. Cornerback Domonique Foxworth was acquired just before the season opener and is now starting for Atlanta.
'I'm sure he'll have a little insight, especially on our personnel, what we like to run and when we like to run it,' Cutler said. 'But it's tough for a guy on defense to know what what's happening on the offensive side. They've got to worry about what they've got to do.'