NFL

Falcons need title to cement status as elite team

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ATLANTA (AP)

When Tony Gonzalez decided to return for one more season, he knew there was only one outcome that would make it a success.

A Super Bowl ring.

Gonzalez's tunnel vision is pretty much indicative of everyone's mindset in Atlanta, where the Falcons have become one of the league's most successful franchises but still need a title to reach truly elite status.

''I came back to win a championship,'' said Gonzalez, looking ahead to his 17th - and, he insists this time - final season. ''That's the kind of team I think we have. We want to pick up where we left off last year.''

Since Thomas Dimitroff took over as general manager and Mike Smith was hired as coach in 2008, the Falcons have gone 56-24 during the regular season, put together five straight winning seasons, made the playoffs four times, won a pair of NFC South titles, and twice earned home-field advantage.

The postseason has been a different story, though Atlanta - and Gonzalez - cleared a huge hurdle last season. For the first time in the Dimitroff-Smith era, the Falcons won a playoff game. For Gonzalez, it was the first playoff win of his career.

Alas, the Falcons came up 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl, losing to San Francisco in a thrilling NFC championship game.

Coming so close persuaded Gonzalez to postpone his retirement plans. The team showed its commitment by signing quarterback Matt Ryan to a nearly $104 million contract extension and landing free-agent running back Steven Jackson to complement one of the NFL's most dynamic passing games, with Matty Ice throwing to Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White.

If the offensive line holds up and the defense makes a stop every now and then, there's no reason the Falcons can't go even farther than they did last season.

''It's incredible,'' Gonzalez said. ''The sky's the limit to what we can do.''

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Here's five things to watch as the Falcons try to win that elusive Super Bowl title:

RYAN'S WEAPONS: The Falcons have the potential to be even more explosive than a year ago, when they ranked seventh in the league in scoring. The 28-year-old Ryan is right in his prime and coming off the best year of his career, with highs in completion percentage (68.6), touchdown passes (32) and yards (4,719). White and Jones combined for 171 receptions, 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns. Gonzalez (93 catches, 930 yards, eight TDs) looks like he could play another decade. Now add Jackson, who should be a much more versatile threat than his predecessor, Michael Turner. Of course, to take advantage of all those highly skilled players, Ryan will need some protection. Which brings us to ...

PROTECTING MATTY ICE: The Falcons' offensive line is a huge question mark. Todd McClure retired, Tyson Clabo was released, and Mike Johnson sustained a season-ending injury in training camp. Left tackle Sam Baker is solid, and Peter Konz should do just fine taking over for McClure at center. But the right side looks very shaky with guard Garrett Reynolds and tackle Lamar Holmes. Atlanta got a glimpse of its potential problems when Ryan was sacked five times by Tennessee in a preseason game. Considering the backup quarterback is untested Dominique Davis, the Falcons must keep Ryan healthy.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: The Falcons didn't get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year, coming up with only 29 sacks (and 10 of those were by since-released John Abraham). Coordinator Mike Nolan prefers a 3-4 alignment, so he's trying to adjust the personnel to fit the scheme. Kroy Biermann has looked more like an outside linebacker during the preseason than his listed position, defensive end. Newcomer Osi Umenyiora also might fill more of a hybrid role. Youngsters such as Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews will be expected to contribute more.

YOUNG SECONDARY: Cornerback was a prime focus in the draft after the Falcons cut Dunta Robinson and lost Brent Grimes in free agency. First-round pick Desmond Trufant was handed a starting job, and second-rounder Robert Alford will plenty of playing time in nickel and dime packages. They must grow up fast, playing in a division that guarantees two games a year against Drew Brees of New Orleans and Cam Newton of Carolina.

SMITTY'S TEAM: Smith has quietly become one of the league's top coaches, though he does his best to avoid getting noticed. He lets his assistants do their jobs, gives the veterans plenty of leeway but makes it clear he's the man in charge. Seriously, how many coaches would've let a player leave training camp for three weeks to be with his family, as Smith did with Gonzalez? That sort of give-and-take has made Atlanta a popular destination for free agents, and Dimitroff does his part by signing team-first players who mesh well together. ''We've had guys that have been the right fit for this organization,'' Ryan said. ''When you win first in the locker room, I think that transcends onto the field.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

Tagged: Falcons, Saints, Panthers, Tony Gonzalez, Osi Umenyiora, Matt Ryan, Mike Johnson, Cam Newton, Mike Smith

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