With NFL training camps just around the corner, we're taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
The 2011 Atlanta Falcons put together one of the quietest playoff seasons you will ever see. As the Saints pulled away in the NFC South, no one ever really talked about Atlanta as a threat to go the distance, despite its presence in the postseason.
The way in which Atlanta got to 10-6 might have had something to do with that. The Falcons beat just two teams that finished with winning records -- the 10-6 Lions and the 9-7 Titans, who missed the playoffs; they lost twice to the Saints, while also dropping showcase games against Green Bay and Houston.
Yet, here we are, preparing for another season in which the Falcons are expected to contend, both in the NFC South and beyond. Is this the year Atlanta finally gets over the hump and becomes a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
2011 Record: 10-6 (second place, NFC South), lost in wild-card round to New York Giants
Team Strengths: QB, WR, TE, CB, DL
Team Weaknesses: LB, OL
Three Things to Watch:
1. How big will Asante Samuel's impact be?: The Falcons were not necessarily awful against the pass in 2011, but they did give up 270 yards or more eight times during the regular season and finished 20th in yards allowed.
Enter Asante Samuel, whom the Eagles wanted to unload because of his massive contract. Atlanta gave up just a seventh-round pick to get him, restructured his deal and plans to plug him right into the starting lineup. With Dunta Robinson and franchise-tagged Brent Grimes rounding out the top three at cornerback, Atlanta should be much stingier against the pass. Samuel, a four-time Pro Bowler, could be the guy to put this unit over the top.
2. Can Peter Konz help shore up the O-line?: To land Julio Jones in the 2011 draft, the Falcons handed a gift basket of picks to Cleveland. So Peter Konz was Atlanta's first selection in 2012, at No. 55 overall. The offensive lineman out of Wisconsin looks like the team's center of the future, but with veteran Todd McClure around for at least one more year, Konz will have to work his way into the lineup elsewhere. The obvious choice is at right guard, which was a gaping hole for the Falcons last season. He'll have to beat out the likes of Mike Johnson and Vince Manuwai to claim that job, but definitely do not bet against him.
3. Will the Falcons' offense take the next step?: Sometimes it's hard to pinpoint why, but it just feels like this Falcons offense should be better. Maybe it's because Matt Ryan now has four seasons under his belt as a starter or because Michael Turner has back-to-back seasons with more than 1,300 yards rushing. Or maybe it's the presence of arguably the greatest tight end ever, Tony Gonzalez, and a talented receiving corps paced by Julio Jones and Roddy White.
But when the Falcons need their offense the most is when it often disappears. Case in point: A laughable 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants, in which the offense managed just 242 total yards. A new offensive coordinator in Dick Koetter and a promise to use the no-huddle more might help Atlanta flip the switch.
Outlook: This is a difficult team to get a read on, because the Falcons have the look of a Super Bowl contender. And yet, despite three playoff berths and one division crown in the past four seasons, they've never really threatened to go the distance. The opportunity to win the NFC South appears to be there again -- New Orleans is in turmoil, while Carolina and Tampa Bay are still building. Maybe Samuel was the missing piece, Konz will help turn the offensive front into a road-paving machine, and Ryan and the offense will suddenly turn into Green Bay South. The Falcons should contend for a playoff spot, but there are still too many question to expect more.