The Atlanta Falcons aren't thrilled to be part of the most surprising trend of the new season -- the collapse of last year's four best teams.
The four conference finalists of last season -- Denver, Atlanta, Minnesota and the New York Jets -- are off to a 1-11 start after the first three weeks.
"It's a tough profession. We need to get a win as quick as we can [get it]. I don't think it's [1-11] ever happened before," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said yesterday. "But you're looking at three teams right now that the majority of the games they haven't played with the quarterbacks they had last year."
He was referring to the fact that Denver's John Elway has retired, the Jets' Vinny Testaverde is out for the season with an Achilles' tendon injury and Atlanta quarterback Chris Chandler pulled a hamstring in the opener and hasn't been the same since.
He re-injured it last week in St. Louis and probably won't play against the Ravens on Sunday.
"I would say Tony Graziani [will start]," Reeves said. "I don't think Chandler will be ready to go."
That means the Falcons will be missing their three top offensive players from a year ago against the Ravens.
Running back Jamal Anderson is out for the season with a knee injury, and the Falcons lost wide receiver Tony Martin when they declined to give him a $400,000 roster bonus because he was facing a drug money-laundering trial. He signed with Miami and then was acquitted on all charges.
Their speedy kick returner, Tim Dwight, may not play because of a hamstring injury.
They're also hurting in the defensive line and could be vulnerable to the running of Errict Rhett if the Ravens stick to the ground game.
"If you can breathe, you've got a chance to play [in the defensive line]," Reeves said of the line's injury situation.
Tackle Travis Hall underwent surgery on his thumb Monday, but the Falcons are not ruling him out. The other starting tackle, Shane Dronett, was declared out by Reeves on Monday with a calf injury, but Reeves said yesterday Dronett may see some action. Backup tackle Ed Jasper is out with a knee injury.
The Falcons may move defensive end Lester Archambeau inside to tackle with Hall or backup Ed Huff at the other tackle while rookie Patrick Kerney may start at end opposite Chuck Smith. They're also thin in the secondary because Michael Booker's status is up in the air because of a hamstring injury.
All the Falcons' misfortune couldn't come at a better time for the Ravens.
They would normally be big underdogs on the road against one of last year's Super Bowl teams, but the oddsmakers have the game off the board because of the Falcons' injury situation.
It also will benefit the Ravens in next year's draft if the Falcons can't dig themselves out of a hole. Atlanta traded its first-round pick next year to the Ravens for a 1999 second-round pick to draft tight end Reggie Kelly, who's been bothered by an ankle injury and is a third-stringer.
What looked like a late first-round pick when the Falcons made the deal could now be a top 10 pick.
In retrospect, Reeves probably should have kept Martin and signed a veteran backup quarterback, instead of Danny Kanell, so he had an alternative to Graziani. And trading away his first-round pick now looks questionable.
"Only time will tell," Reeves said when he was asked if Kelly will eventually play well enough to justify giving up a first-round pick for him.
But he defended the decision not to give Martin the money, suggesting it was easier for him to win a court case in Miami when he was a member of the Dolphins than if he had still been a Falcon.
"If you've got those two guys [Dan Marino and Jimmy Johnson] testifying for you in Florida, I think that's pretty good," he said. Johnson didn't testify, but made a court visit.
Defending the move to sign Kanell, who opened the season as a third-stringer, Reeves said, "I thought we addressed our quarterback situation the best we could." Kanell has completed nine of 22 passes with a quarterback rating of 46.0 this season.
The Falcons' slow start means it's a pivotal game for both teams.
At 0-3, the Falcons are probably out of the Super Bowl chase. At 0-4, they'd probably be out of the playoff race, although San Diego made it at 11-5 after starting off 0-4 in 1992.
It's also a pivotal game for the 1-2 Ravens because a victory would boost them to .500 and mean they would be playing for .500 again in their next home game against Kansas City if they lose next week at unbeaten Tennessee.
A loss in Atlanta, though, would mean the Ravens would have to upset Tennessee next week to avoid a 1-4 start.
The Falcons are hurting, but a Reeves team can never be counted out. He may make questionable personnel moves, but he's good at rallying the players.
"It doesn't happen because you talk about it," Reeves said. "It happens because you work at it."
Reeves is likely to run Byron Hanspard and count on defensive coordinator Rich Brooks getting his banged-up defense to rebound from the St. Louis loss and shut down Ravens coach Brian Billick's offense.
In his last matchup with Billick in the NFC title game in Minnesota in January, Brooks' defense took Randy Moss out of the game and held the Vikings to seven points in the second half as the Falcons rallied to win in overtime, 30-27, to gain a Super Bowl berth.
Brooks said, "Moss was a huge threat, but we tried to get some pressure on him and roll up on him and not let him run down the field."
Reeves, though, won't concede the Falcons know how to stop Billick's offense.
"I think we played well in that particular [NFC title] game. I don't know if we have anything on Brian Billick's offense. That'd be nice if it happens this week. That'd be great," Reeves said.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Atlanta Falcons
Site: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Off the board