"Encore!" is the cry from the Atlanta Falcons faithful entering the 2009 season.
With a team that blew lackluster predictions out of the water last year, the team has the ATL thinking Super Bowl for the first time since the Dirty Bird was socially acceptable.
And who can blame the revived fan base that hasn’t had anything to cheer for since the collapse of the Braves' front office? Unlike usual fan expectations, which set the bar at an unreachable height, Atlanta fans may have a shot at satisfying their cravings this season.
Some would say Super Bowl or bust this season, especially considering the Falcons play in the NFC. Unfortunately for Atlanta, the NFC has improved drastically from a year ago. The Eagles and Cardinals, who squared off for last season's conference crown, will be back and ready, but oh, how the tides elsewhere have turned.
As usual, the NFC East is busting at the seams with ability. Jerry Jones’ talent-laden, yet underachieving Cowboys are always bound to be in the playoff hunt.
Eli Manning has the champs of two years ago ready to go, despite Plaxico issues. After all, the Giants should have the scariest defensive front in all of football along with the semi-truck sized Brandon Jacobs in the backfield.
Who knows if Jeremy Maclin will pan out, but if Donovan McNabb is happy the Eagles can beat almost anyone.
Last and usually least, but not for a lack of forking out millions upon millions of dollars courtesy of Daniel Snyder, the Washington Redskins could go .500—despite Jason Campbell’s feelings being hurt by trade talks with Jay Cutler.
The NFC North jumped exponentially in conference strength when Cutler signed with Chicago. Blind men in the streets had been screaming for any average quarterback to fit into the championship-caliber team for years, and finally Da Bears granted them their modest wish.
The Packers are a wild card whose fate depends heavily on defense; will the stout side of two years ago show up, or will their porous efforts from last year continue?
Minnesota, well, obviously this is probably the team that will get the most media coverage over the next three months depending on what that ol’ rocket-armed Mississippi man decides to do. A Super Bowl or a losing record could be on their horizon, but I would like to think playoffs are in their future—what with a top-five defense and the most talented running back in the league.
The Cardinals are the only team out West that should pose much of a threat, no matter what happens with Anquan Boldin, because Seattle won’t win on the road.
This brings us to the understated, yet very good NFC south. The Buccaneers are a mess and are already out of the picture; but as for the other three teams, it’s going to be a dog fight.
The defending division champs are going to be formidable again in Carolina. Having re-signed their level-headed Bayou signal caller to lead a two-headed monster backfield, the Panthers are ready for a return to the playoffs. Throw in the greatest 5'9" receiver of all time, and you've got an offense that should stack up to an already strong defense.
The Falcons bring back the essentials of their Cinderella story from a year ago. While Matty Ice took most of the headlines, the running game was the real key to their successful offensive season.
Roddy White has shown he can be a go-to receiver, but this year he’ll have a bit of help. That little bit of help has come in the form of, arguably the greatest receiving tight end in NFL history, Tony Gonzalez. With his receiving threat in the middle, it’s going to stretch the field, spread out the linebackers, giving Michael Turner even more room to do his bowling-ball impression down the field.
The Falcons main foe is going to be, simply, their schedule. The first half of the season brings only two opponents that won’t be in the playoff hunt: San Francisco and Washington. Their schedule softens the last three weeks of the season against the Jets, Bucs, and Bills; but if they’re not careful, too much damage may have been done by then.
I don’t expect the Falcons to buckle under the pressure of a difficult schedule; instead they'll take Herm Edwards' advice and simply play to win the game.