The Atlanta Falcons fell just short of reaching the Super Bowl last season, falling to the Seattle Seahawks, 30-28, in the NFC Championship Game. On Thursday night, the Falcons begin their quest to take the next step and reach the 2014 Super Bowl.

Atlanta will host the Cincinnati Bengals for an 8 p.m. ET start. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. Viewers can watch a free live stream online at

Matt Ryan will take the field for the first time since becoming one of the richest players in football. In July, he signed a five-year, $103.75 million contract extension. Ryan takes on a great deal of responsibility with the lucrative contract, as the Falcons have their sights set on their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1998-1999. He’ll have a lot of help, though, with one of the best wide-receiver tandems in the league. Roddy White and Julio Jones combined to catch 171 passes for 2,549 yards.

Ryan will hand off the ball to Stephen Jackson for the first time. The veteran is coming off eight straight seasons of at least 1,000 rushing yards and will replace Michael Turner as the team’s starter.

While the Falcons are expected to be a top offensive unit in the NFC, the Falcons are looking to see improvement from their defense, which struggled at times in 2012. Atlanta lost a few names in free agency, but replaced them with what they hope will be productive players. Osi Umenyiora joins the Falcons defensive line after nine seasons with the New York Giants. He hopes to replace the 10 sacks that John Abraham recorded last year. With Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson gone from the secondary, first-round pick Desmond Trufant is in position to be a key cornerback in 2013.

The Bengals return much of the same team as they come off their second straight playoff appearance. The biggest addition made in the offseason comes in the form of James Harrison, a former rival of Cincinnati with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The club hopes to learn this preseason how much the linebacker has left, after he turned 35 in May and missed eight games in the last two years.

The Bengals already have one of the league’s best wide receivers in A.J. Green. They drafted a top tight end for quarterback Andy Dalton. Tyler Eifert will face NFL competition for the first time since being selected at No.21 overall in April.

Betting Line: Atlanta-2.5, 36.5

Prediction Atlanta 27, Cincinnati 13