The Michael Vick nightmare is a thing of the oh-so-distant past in Atlanta, as quarterback Matt Ryan has injected hope into the Falcons' fan base.
Atlanta is coming off consecutive second-place finishes in the NFC South, and its 20 victories over the last two seasons are the organization's most in a two-year span in more than a decade. Let's take a look at the Falcons in the seventh stop of NESN.com's 32-day tour through the NFL.
2009 Record: 9-7 (missed playoffs)
2010 Schedule Difficulty: Their opponents went a combined 127-129 (.496 winning percentage) in 2009, which makes for the 20th most difficult schedule in the NFL.
Key Additions: Cornerback Dunta Robinson, outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (draft)
Key Losses: Cornerback Chris Houston
Burning Question: Did the Falcons do enough in the offseason? Ryan, running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White are the foundation for an offense that can contend for a playoff spot for awhile. Defensively, however, the Falcons might not be there yet. Their pass rush was abysmal in 2009, registering just 28 sacks, and their defense was overly basic and boring. Sean Weatherspoon should inject some life into the linebackers, and Dunta Robinson is a definite upgrade at cornerback. The Falcons also have to be hopeful they can get something out of defensive tackle Peria Jerry after he missed the majority of his rookie year with a knee injury.
Head coach Mike Smith was an accomplished defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, but he'll have to do more with less in Atlanta. Granted, there wasn’t much on the free-agent market this offseason, but if the Falcons had a more productive spring, they'd probably be looked upon as dark-horse Super Bowl contenders.
2010 Outlook: It will be difficult for the Falcons to get over the hump. They're good enough to get into the playoffs, but unless they can overtake the Saints for the division crown, the Falcons will have to win a postseason game on the road. That’s not exactly an impossible feat, but it's the next hurdle Ryan has to clear during his progression as a big-time quarterback. Look for Ryan to be much better in his third season than in his sophomore campaign. If his teammates follow his example, the Falcons might actually be primed to win a game or two in the playoffs.