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Falcons begin Matt Ryan era against Lions

ATLANTA - The Atlanta Falcons have a new general manager, a new coach and a new quarterback - not to mention plenty of good feelings in the locker room.

That might be the most refreshing change of all after what this team went through last season.

'We have a great working environment,' said linebacker Keith Brooking, the Falcons' senior member as he enters his 11th season. 'We will win here, sooner rather than later. There's no doubt about that. I'm a big believer in what they're doing.'

Just don't expect immediate results. Atlanta, which opens the season today hosting the Detroit Lions, had little choice except starting over after a debacle of a season that will forever be remembered for the downfall of the biggest star in franchise history.

Michael Vick, a thrilling, one-of-a-kind quarterback who kept every seat filled in the Georgia Dome, wound up in prison garb rather than a Falcons uniform after admitting to his role in a gruesome dogfighting operation. As he headed off to serve a nearly two-year sentence, he took with him any hope of a successful season.

Rookie coach Bobby Petrino didn't even make it through one full season in Atlanta, stirring up plenty of hard feelings with his dictatorial style before he jumped ship with three games left to return to the college ranks. Not surprisingly, the Falcons struggled to a 4-12 record, their worst mark since 2000.

After Rich McKay was booted upstairs, Thomas Dimitroff took over as general manager with the goal of rebuilding with youth. Seven rookies made the final cuts, and 19 players on the 53-man roster have no more than one year of pro experience.

In keeping with that theme, the Falcons handed Mike Smith the first head coaching job of his career. It remains to be seen whether he's up to the task, but at least he's taken some big steps toward patching up a locker room that was nearly in full revolt by the end of Petrino's brief regime.

'Anytime you go through transition and change, the quicker you get guys to buy into it and believe it, the better off you'll be,' Brooking said. 'That energy, that style, that atmosphere is very positive. We have a good chance of being successful. It's very encouraging to see what's taking place around here.'

SideBar:

Lions at Falcons

· When: Today, 1 p.m.

· Where: Atlanta

· TV/Radio: Fox, 92.9-FM