Falcons need title to cement status as elite team

When Tony Gonzalez decided to return for one more season, he

knew there was only one outcome that would make it a success.

A Super Bowl ring.

Gonzalez’s tunnel vision is pretty much indicative of everyone’s

mindset in Atlanta, where the Falcons have become one of the

league’s most successful franchises but still need a title to reach

truly elite status.

”I came back to win a championship,” said Gonzalez, looking

ahead to his 17th – and, he insists this time – final season.

”That’s the kind of team I think we have. We want to pick up where

we left off last year.”

Since Thomas Dimitroff took over as general manager and Mike

Smith was hired as coach in 2008, the Falcons have gone 56-24

during the regular season, put together five straight winning

seasons, made the playoffs four times, won a pair of NFC South

titles, and twice earned home-field advantage.

The postseason has been a different story, though Atlanta – and

Gonzalez – cleared a huge hurdle last season. For the first time in

the Dimitroff-Smith era, the Falcons won a playoff game. For

Gonzalez, it was the first playoff win of his career.

Alas, the Falcons came up 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl, losing

to San Francisco in a thrilling NFC championship game.

Coming so close persuaded Gonzalez to postpone his retirement

plans. The team showed its commitment by signing quarterback Matt

Ryan to a nearly $104 million contract extension and landing

free-agent running back Steven Jackson to complement one of the

NFL’s most dynamic passing games, with Matty Ice throwing to

Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White.

If the offensive line holds up and the defense makes a stop

every now and then, there’s no reason the Falcons can’t go even

farther than they did last season.

”It’s incredible,” Gonzalez said. ”The sky’s the limit to

what we can do.”

Here’s five things to watch as the Falcons try to win that

elusive Super Bowl title:

RYAN’S WEAPONS: The Falcons have the potential to be even more

explosive than a year ago, when they ranked seventh in the league

in scoring. The 28-year-old Ryan is right in his prime and coming

off the best year of his career, with highs in completion

percentage (68.6), touchdown passes (32) and yards (4,719). White

and Jones combined for 171 receptions, 2,549 yards and 17

touchdowns. Gonzalez (93 catches, 930 yards, eight TDs) looks like

he could play another decade. Now add Jackson, who should be a much

more versatile threat than his predecessor, Michael Turner. Of

course, to take advantage of all those highly skilled players, Ryan

will need some protection. Which brings us to …

PROTECTING MATTY ICE: The Falcons’ offensive line is a huge

question mark. Todd McClure retired, Tyson Clabo was released, and

Mike Johnson sustained a season-ending injury in training camp.

Left tackle Sam Baker is solid, and Peter Konz should do just fine

taking over for McClure at center. But the right side looks very

shaky with guard Garrett Reynolds and tackle Lamar Holmes. Atlanta

got a glimpse of its potential problems when Ryan was sacked five

times by Tennessee in a preseason game. Considering the backup

quarterback is untested Dominique Davis, the Falcons must keep Ryan

healthy.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: The Falcons didn’t get much pressure on

opposing quarterbacks last year, coming up with only 29 sacks (and

10 of those were by since-released John Abraham). Coordinator Mike

Nolan prefers a 3-4 alignment, so he’s trying to adjust the

personnel to fit the scheme. Kroy Biermann has looked more like an

outside linebacker during the preseason than his listed position,

defensive end. Newcomer Osi Umenyiora also might fill more of a

hybrid role. Youngsters such as Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff

Matthews will be expected to contribute more.

YOUNG SECONDARY: Cornerback was a prime focus in the draft after

the Falcons cut Dunta Robinson and lost Brent Grimes in free

agency. First-round pick Desmond Trufant was handed a starting job,

and second-rounder Robert Alford will plenty of playing time in

nickel and dime packages. They must grow up fast, playing in a

division that guarantees two games a year against Drew Brees of New

Orleans and Cam Newton of Carolina.

SMITTY’S TEAM: Smith has quietly become one of the league’s top

coaches, though he does his best to avoid getting noticed. He lets

his assistants do their jobs, gives the veterans plenty of leeway

but makes it clear he’s the man in charge. Seriously, how many

coaches would’ve let a player leave training camp for three weeks

to be with his family, as Smith did with Gonzalez? That sort of

give-and-take has made Atlanta a popular destination for free

agents, and Dimitroff does his part by signing team-first players

who mesh well together. ”We’ve had guys that have been the right

fit for this organization,” Ryan said. ”When you win first in the

locker room, I think that transcends onto the field.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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