ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons who were willing to talk said all the right things following their 28-24 NFC championship game loss to San Francisco on Sunday.
"We did so many good things this year, we just have to improve on the bad," defensive end Kroy Biermann said. "We'll be back, you can bet on that."
Said defensive lineman John Abraham, whose tender ankles no doubt slowed the Falcons' pass rush: "This is a tough pill to swallow ... but I firmly anticipate coming back next year to give it another run. To get this far is a major accomplishment. I plan to keep this going as long as possible."
Added head coach Mike Smith: "We played hard and had our chances for this to be a different outcome. We just didn't make enough plays to win the ballgame."
But is this team in its current state more a pretender or a contender in trying to become a Super Bowl champ at the close of the 2013 season?
It's nice of tight end Tony Gonzalez to say, "We had it at the end, we just came up short," but can the Falcons seriously win the title without Gonzalez's talent and leadership?
"If I ever did decide to come back, you know where I'll be," he said of the 5 percent chance he won't retire after 16 seasons. "I'll be right here, an Atlanta Falcon."
To improve those odds, Gonzalez must be made to say absolutely no and forced to turn down a barrel of money along the way. Sign him to whatever figure is necessary for one season. Promise him a paid trip to California during next year's off week to see his son, or promise to fly his son to Atlanta. Make him an offer he can't refuse, because the Falcons' chances of reaching the Super Bowl shrink considerably without him.
And to end any uncertainty about retirement next year, call a news conference in August to announce this will definitely be Gonzo's final season, much as Chipper Jones did with the Braves before the 2012 baseball campaign.
As for the rest of the team, a 49ers fan called me Monday to say the Falcons "aren't mean enough on defense."
Given the two personal-foul penalties they received Sunday, some might argue with that. But his point that Atlanta doesn't tackle fiercely (or all that well) has some validity.
The defensive backs often look as if they learned tackling from former Falcon Deion Sanders, who may have been the greatest cover corner ever but approached fundamentally sound tackling as if he were attempting to wrap his arms around a cobra rather than an enemy ball carrier.
To reach a Super Bowl, the Falcons must commit to improving their tackling skills or find a few defensive backs and linebackers who can.
The running game -- ranked a putrid 29th in the NFL -- also must get better. Michael Turner is 30 years old and beginning to wear down. His current backup, Jacquizz Rodgers, has sometimes looked like a productive starting tailback, but he's 5-foot-6 and 196 pounds.
It's fine for wideout Harry Douglas to say of Rodgers, "He's short, but he's probably got the most muscles I've ever seen on a human being," but he's still 5-6, 196, and good as he is, Rodgers is no Barry Sanders.
Times Free Press sports editor Jay Greeson believes the Falcons should draft injured South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, and if only to have his potential talent and certain character on the team that would seem a good move. But Lattimore isn't going to help anybody in 2013. So risky though this may seem, the Falcons should make any deal possible save the trading of quarterback Matt Ryan, wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White and safety William Moore to draft Alabama running back Eddie Lacy.
Lacy would give the Falcons a tough, durable back on the order of Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, someone capable of playing six or seven strong seasons. It might also further open passing lanes for Ryan, always a good thing.
As he talked about his own probable retirement last week, Gonzalez laughingly called Ryan "a dinosaur" in this age of running quarterbacks.
However, he quickly and correctly added that Atlanta's 27-year-old QB belongs on the short list of the NFL's best pocket passers -- Eli and Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
And given the 396 yards, three touchdowns and 114.8 QB rating that Ryan amassed against the 49ers, it would be tough to argue that assessment, despite his two costly third-quarter turnovers.
But if the Falcons don't improve their tackling and running before next season, Tyrannosaurus Ryan's Super Bowl chances may also become extinct before they're extended.