published Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Atlanta Falcons again ready to chase Super Bowl dream

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws against the Tennessee Titans in a preseason on Aug. 24.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws against the Tennessee Titans in a preseason on Aug. 24.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) walks off the field following a 35-31 win over the Philadelphia Eagles at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in 2011.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Eight months later, Atlanta Falcons safety William Moore still hasn't watched last February's Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and the world champion Baltimore Ravens.

"Not a minute of it," he said last week from the team's practice complex. "I watched the halftime show (Beyonce), but none of the game. It hurt too much that we weren't there. It still hurts."

At 1 p.m. EDT today inside the Superdome we'll begin to find out if the ongoing hurt from that 28-24 home loss to the Niners in last January's NFC title game has energized or euthanized the Falcons' determination to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1998 season, as well as win it all for the first time ever.

That's when Atlanta will kick off the 2013 regular season against bitter NFC South rival New Orleans, which welcomes back coach Sean Payton from his yearlong suspension for Bountygate. That's also when Falcons Nation will begin to learn if this summer's 0-4 exhibition record was a smokescreen or a five-alarm fire.

"Our number one goal in the preseason is to win games," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith. "Right behind it is keeping our guys healthy. I thought when we worked with our first unit, and I think we had maybe two days when we had all those guys on the field at the same time, we were fine. I'm very confident."

Though some believe the health of invaluable receiver Roddy White's ankle remains in doubt this afternoon, the Falcons have looked anything but under the weather during Smith's first five season as coach. His 56-24 overall regular-season record is the second best in the NFL over that time, and he's the only active coach in the NFC to have posted five straight winning seasons.

Nor is Smith a stranger to turning 0-4 preseasons into playoff teams. The Falcons reached the wild-card round in 2011 after failing to win a single exhibition contest.

"Sunday can't get here fast enough," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said Wednesday. "I think everybody's itching to play."

Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff satisfied whatever financial itch Ryan might ever have to leave the Big Peach by signing him to a $103.75 million contract extension in July. The deal includes $59 million of guaranteed money.

"We look forward to Matt being an Atlanta Falcon for the rest of his career," team owner Arthur Blank said at the time.

So do his teammates. When asked who picks up the check now when the offense goes out for dinner, wide receiver Julio Jones flashed a big smile and instantly responded, "Matt does, of course."

Yet during most of the preseason, Ryan could have sued his offensive line for non-support. In the 27-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville in the third exhibition game, "Matty Ice" was put on ice five times by a sack-happy Titans D.

Looking to shore up the right side of a line that entered the season without tackle Tyson Clabo, then saw his replacement, Mike Johnson, lost early in training camp to a season-ending injury, the Falcons picked up 6-foot-8, 315-pound, 30-year-old veteran tackle Jeremy Trueblood this past week.

But two far more highly publicized additions are expected to pay the biggest dividends for the Falcons: defensive lineman Osi Umenyiora, who won two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants, and running back Steven Jackson, the NFL's only active running back with at least 10,000 rushing yards and 3,000 receiving yards for his career.

Anyone who plays fantasy football knows of Jackson, who has rushed for at least 1,000 yards the past eight seasons and has led all running backs since 2005 with 388 receptions and 3,135 receiving yards. Having just turned 30, the former St. Louis Ram is expected to gain the hard yards a worn-down Michael Turner could not get down the stretch last season.

"A successful season for me is getting to the playoffs and getting to the Super Bowl," Jackson told the Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier in the summer. "If that doesn't happen, I want to make sure I'm not the reason we fell short."

But big as getting to the Super Bowl would be for the Falcons and their fans, the ultimate goal is to win it, which is where Umenyiora comes in.

It's not just that the 28-year-old Ryan almost instantly began pumping the 31-year-old Umenyiora for how to win the Lombardi Trophy after the Falcons first signed him in March.

According to USA Today, Ryan's first question to the defensive end was, "What do we have to do differently to win a Super Bowl?"

The former Giant's reply: "There's no magic. You just have to remain consistent and continue to work."

But Umenyiora, who has lived in Atlanta for the past 14 years when not playing for Troy University or in the NFL, almost instantly changed the Falcons' work ethic, beginning offseason workouts each day at 6 a.m. instead of the Birds' longtime 8 a.m. start.

"Very quickly, another defensive end decided to come in at 6 a.m.," Smith noted. "Then we had a small group of guys following Osi. He's very quickly become a leader. Now it really depends on what the other guys around him do."

If all the Falcons' guys shrug off this preseason to flourish in the postseason, much credit will justifiably fall to Dimitroff, who made Ryan his first draft pick in 2008, has steadily improved the team with a masterful mix of young and old and who drastically shook up the roster this season, electing to go with as many as 12 rookies on the 53-man roster, including University of Washington product Desmond Trufant as a starting cornerback.

"I think I'm ready," Trufant said a few days ago. "Everybody's just telling me I have to adjust to the speed of the game, and I believe I will. I know [Saints quarterback Drew] Brees is going to complete some passes against me. I just don't want to give up a big pass."

Brees has completed a lot of big passes in the Big Easy against the Falcons over the years. And Smith is just 2-8 in his career against the Saints. More troublesome going forward is his 1-4 playoff record. But as a counter sign for this weekend only, New Orleans is 0-6 against Atlanta in season openers.

"The motivation around here never changes," Ryan said. "The motivation is to win the [Super Bowl]. Part of that is because we've come so close. Part of it is because we've fallen short. Regardless, there's a lot of motivation to change that this year."

Beginning today.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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