Back to back winning seasons are the mark of a contender. But, as many long-suffering Atlantans know, the Falcons have never pulled off the feat.
2009 is the year to get that 40-year-old monkey off the team's back. Despite facing a much tougher schedule than last year's 11-5 team, the Falcons should win 9 or 10 games and end this season back in the playoffs.
The Falcons are facing high expectations after last year's stellar season. All of last years offensive starters are back and the addition of Pro-Bowl TE Tony Gonzales should create even more problems for opposing coordinators. The defense however, has seen major turnover, and it remains to be seen if they can hold up their end of the deal.
For the Falcons to exceed expectations and move deep into the playoffs, the new look defense will have to improve on last years unit that gave up almost 350 yards (347.9 to be exact) per game. To do this several players will need to step up.
Both DE Jamaal Anderson and DB Chris Houston need to play up to their billing. The two former Arkansas Razorbacks were both drafted high in 2007, and both have disappointed thus far. Houston has at least earned a starting spot for this season, but needs to become a shut-down corner. Anderson has only 2 sacks in 2 seasons and needs to generate more pass rush to balance DE John Abraham's work.
A couple of rookies will also play key rolls on defense if the Falcons are going to truly impress this year.
DT Peria Jerry needs be a 299-pound anchor for the defense and generate some pocket collapsing pressure up the middle. The loss of 350-pound DT Grady Jackson has made the Falcons a little light up front, and it is up to Jerry to make up for it. If he shines, the Falcons defense may be able to hide other short-comings.
Rookie safety William Moore could earn a starting spot in camp. He dropped to the 2nd round of the draft after an injury plagued college career. But Moore has top flight ball hawking talent and if he stays healthy could be a dominant force at safety. If Moore can help hide some other issues in the secondary the Falcons should be set for a great season.
Even with such high expectations, it is easy to see how the Falcons could fall flat on their face this year.
If the aforementioned young players don't mature quickly the Dirty Birds could be in real trouble. The defense is young and many of the veterans are in more prominant roles than before. If things don't gel, the Falcons could find themselves on the wrong side of a string of shoot-outs.
Looking lost on defense is a real possibility following the departure of the unit's two strongest leaders. The release of veteran LB Keith Brooking and SS Lawyer Milloy created a leadership void.
Whether that void can (or will) be filled by someone else remains to be seen. The best candidates look to be OLB Mike Peterson who played for Coach Smith in Jacksonville and 2nd year MLB Curtis Lofton.
DE John Abraham is a star who certainly has the stats of a leader but has yet to step up in the locker room.
On offense, the Falcons only have one major concern... avoiding the "Sophomore Slump" for QB Matt Ryan.
Ryan played well as a rookie, throwing for 16 TDs and more than 3000 yards. While a down year is possible, the reports out of mini camp are that Ryan looks more comfortable than ever and is becoming the leader of the offense.
Lastly, the Falcons have to avoid key injuries. If Ryan or Abraham goes down for more than 6 weeks, you can write the team off. The depth chart could help at some positions (i.e. RB & WR), but as the Patriots proved last year, it's hard to make the playoffs with a back-up quarterback.
The Falcons could win as many as 11 games this year, and with a little bit of luck make a deep run in the playoffs.
But, even going 9-7 might be enough to win a tough NFC South this year. Plus, winning 9 games would start to make the 43 years without back to back winning seasons a distant memory.