There's a lot of talk about the Falcons right now.
Will they have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history?
Will Matt Ryan suffer the dreaded sophomore slump?
Will the defense be worse or better after the postseason purge that sent Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, and Domonique Foxworth in search of new jerseys?
Will Tony Gonzalez make the team Atlanta-Falcons-Examiner%7Ey2009m4d24-The-Tony-Gonzalez-trade-A-closer-look-on-the-day-after">substantially better?
So many questions.
However, as the season begins it's approach, let's just skip to the end and lay it all out there—let's forget the questions and just go straight to the answers.
The road will not be easy—the Falcons will enter next season boasting one of the toughest schedules this side of hell.
However, it's not impossible, improbable, or unlikely that they will emerge victorious.
After all, the games are played on the field—not on paper.
Here are five things that must happen if the Atlanta Falcons are going to win the NFC South and contend for an NFC Championship.
1. Matt Ryan has to play like Matt Ryan.
Say what you will about Matt Ryan's inaugural season.
Contend that he benefited from the presence of a stellar run-game in Michael Turner.
Bring up the fact that Roddy White played better than most thought he could.
Remind us that the offensive line played unexpectedly well and likely won't duplicate that performance again—and when you say that, please do so in front of Harvey Dahl.
I am sure he may have a thing or two to say about that.
Bring all that up and more and the response will be the same: Matt Ryan is the truth.
He's not a flash in the pan quarterback who got lucky and won a few games.
Matt Ryan is mature beyond his years with the poise and precision of a guy who has been in the league a lot longer.
He's confident in the system and knows how to make plays.
He only got better down the stretch and with the addition of Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, he will only get better.
He was good last year and the Falcons were an 11-5 team who nearly made it to the second-round of the playoffs.
He's only going to get better with a year of experience under his belt and a new weapon to catch his passes.
2. Peria Jerry needs to live up to his draft pick.
Recent injury questions aside, we need to see Peria Jerry bring his A-game this season.
John Abraham was the lone bright spot last year on an otherwise forgettable starting defensive line.
Jamal Anderson is still trying to figure out how to play his position, but there is some hope that in this, his third-year, he may finally live up to the hype of the top ten pick the Falcons used on him in 2006.
Jerry brings the attitude, the work-ethic, and the technique you need to see in a good pass-rusher.
He is poised to be the big time guy the Falcons need to bolster the pass rush and put more pressure on the opposing quarterbacks in the league.
If he can stay healthy and be the guy he's thought to be, the defensive line will be a nasty bunch this coming season.
3. Tony Gonzalez has to play well.
The Falcons lacked an efficient tight end last year.
We didn't have weapons...We had guys filling a space on the field.
Matt Ryan made his money on Roddy White and Michael Jenkins and that meant wherever they went...so went the passing game.
However, the glaring hole that was the tight end spot has not only been filled by a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but by a guy who is a team player and a phenomenal leader.
Last season in Kansas City, Tony Gonzalez racked up 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He won't likely do that again as offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey favors the power-running game, but Gonzalez will give Mularkey the multi-dimensional player he covets in executing a gadget play or two—adding yet another aspect to what promises to be an explosive offense.
Gonzalez also brings with him a will to win and a whole lot of experience to impart to a rather young team.
If he can instill some of that competitive drive into a few of our guys, watch out!
4. They have to beat the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints are a dangerous team.
They lacked a good defense to go with that potent offense and got burned more often than not last year.
The Falcons get the Saints on Monday Night Football this season, and this game will likely determine who truly rules the dirty south.
By the time the two teams meet, the Falcons will either be 4-2 or 2-4, either way the game will turn the tide for the remainder of the season.
The Saints look like they have found their playmaker in Malcolm Jenkins—add to that a healthy Marques Colston and a re-dedicated defense, and you have all the makings of a team that is ready to march on some foes.
The rest of the south isn't slouching either, but the quarterback questions in Tampa Bay coupled with the Julius Peppers saga in Carolina make me wonder if either of those teams will be worthy opponents this season.
No, for the money the real showdown is between the Saints and the Falcons.
They split the matchups last season, but with the way these teams are setting themselves up this year, it would not surprise me if either swept the other.
5. They have to maintain their focus as a team and not get caught up in the hype.
Coach speak is easy.
"Take it one play/game at a time," "Protect the ball," "Play smart, don't make mistakes that can come back and hurt you," etc.
Coach speak is also true.
The Falcons cannot afford to buy into the hype. They have to take it one game at a time.
The birds have a tremendous shot at being successful this year, despite the schedule.
Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, respectively, had two of the toughest schedules in the AFC last season and all they did was meet up in the AFC Championship game.
Sounds pretty good to me.
The Falcons might not waltz through this season, but there's nothing wrong with a little two-step—I hear Tony's a pretty good dancer.