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FLOWERY BRANCH — Winning a Super Bowl isn’t a goal you’ll catch Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith talking about to the media.
But after a 2010 campaign that saw the Falcons go 13-3 in the regular season to earn an NFC South division title and the conference’s top seed, only to have their championship aspirations crushed in their playoff opener, it’s safe to assume they’re shooting to be playing the first Sunday of February.
“Our expectations are very high,” said Smith, in his fourth season as Falcons coach. “We keep our goals internal, and we won’t talk about them publicly, but I can tell you this — they’re very high.”
Of course, every team’s expectations, especially in the preseason, are high. But what separates Atlanta from other teams, like say the Bengals in Cincinnati, is the Falcons really do appear to be on the verge of a championship.
Ever since the trio of Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived, the team has done nothing but achieve. Before they got to Atlanta, the Falcons had never had back-to-back winning seasons. They just completed their third straight.
Last year, they rode an eight-game win streak to take the conference’s No. 1 seed. They had home-field advantage secured throughout the playoffs. But they ran into a Packers team that played the game of their lives and blew Atlanta out 48-21.
To Atlanta’s credit, no one else beat the Super Bowl champion Packers either.
It’s a loss that sticks with every returning Falcon. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the Falcons first-round pick last year, is a quick study and earned a starter’s role in six of the 10 games he played in during 2010. Entering his second year, he’s already sounding like a veteran when reflecting on the Packers loss.
“You learned those first 16 games are only to qualify you for the playoffs, and it doesn’t matter what you did those first 16 games,” Weatherspoon said. “It only matters what you do in the playoffs. We just want a shot at redeeming ourselves.
“All the guys remember the feeling we had on Jan. 15, 2011. We definitely want to get back to that point and have a better outcome this time around.”
All signs point to the Falcons having a great shot at returning to the top of the division and conference. Seven of their 16 games this year are against teams that had a losing record in 2010. Another, Jacksonville, finished 8-8. Of the eight winning teams the Falcons play, they beat four of them last year.
In the 32-team league, Atlanta has the 11th easiest schedule.
“The good thing about this organization, and specifically, the guys in our locker room, is we expect a lot from ourselves,” Ryan said.
There’s no reason to assume these Falcons can’t reach the Super Bowl.
The addition of receiver Julio Jones will spread the field vertically, allowing proven Pro Bowlers Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White to make even more plays. Power running back Michael Turner had a rebound year last season after a disappointing 2009, and with the speed and elusiveness of Jacquizz Rodgers adding an interesting wrinkle to the mix, the run game is solid as well. It’s an offense that can match up with any in the league.
On the defensive side, if Friday’s signing of defensive end Ray Edwards lives up to its billing, the Falcons will finally have the pass-rushing compliment to John Abraham they’ve been seeking since Abraham joined the team in 2006. That should help a secondary that made great strides last year with the development of Brent Grimes. The linebacker corps, with Weatherspoon, Mike Peterson and Curtis Lofton, is rock solid. While it’s not the best defense in the league, it’s bend-but-don’t break, which is all that’s necessary to give the offense a shot to win.
So as the new season opens Sept. 11 in Chicago against the Bears, the Falcons will again look to repeat last year’s regular season success. And maybe they can use lessons learned from last year’s postseason to produce a different outcome this time around.
Or maybe forgetting the Packers game is best recourse?
“Last year’s done,” Ryan said. “It’s all about this year and giving ourselves an opportunity to play in January.
“And hopefully win.”
Adam Krohn is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at Twitter.com/gtimesakrohn.