Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 1/3/12
In 2007, the Atlanta Falcons might have hit their low point in franchise history. The NFL suspended quarterback Michael Vick, Atlanta’s former number one overall pick, for dog fighting. Then in December, Vick received a 23-month prison sentence. A few days later, Bobby Petrino resigned as head coach and left for the University of Arkansas without notice. He only left a note in the locker room for his players to read. Atlanta was nothing short of a mess.

Maybe it was because they couldn’t sink any lower, but things quickly changed for the Falcons. They hired Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator Mike Smith to be head coach, signed running back Michael Turner and seleceted quarterback Matt Ryan third in the draft. In their first season together, Atlanta went 11-5 and advanced to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Although simply earning a wild card spot didn’t seem like a major feat, given the circumstances of the year before, it was a big accomplishment. Even though the Falcons lost in the Wild Card round, NFL fans were impressed with how quickly Atlanta had improved. Atlanta's resurgence with a rookie head coach and quarterback directly coincided with Baltimore's return to prominence as the Ravens also had a rookie head coach and quarterback. 

But going into the following season, Mike Smith had a new goal: end the 2009 season with a winning record and end their streak of years without consecutive winning seasons. From 1966-2008, the Falcons had never had back-to-back winning seasons. After being eliminated from the playoffs late in December, Atlanta continued to play hard and won their last two games to finish 9-7.

That pitiful record is now a mere afterthought for the Smith, Ryan and the Falcons. Last season, they won 13 games in route to being the NFC’s number one seed. This year, Atlanta earned a wild card berth which marks the first time the Falcons will have back-to-back playoff appearances.

Now, Atlanta is ready to make that next step. Mike Smith has yet to have a playoff win in two tries. In 2010, the eventual Super Bowl Champion Packers dismantled the Falcons in the Georgia Dome 48-21. This weekend, Smith and Ryan will have another chance to win their first playoff game. The Falcons play the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.

It’s easy to say, well, Atlanta won’t be able to challenge Green Bay or San Francisco, and they already lost to New Orleans twice, so they won't make the Super Bowl. This team, however, should not be taken lightly. Maybe this won’t be their year, but they could certainly make some noise.

Teams like New England, Green Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans and Pittsburgh get all the credit for being perennial playoff teams and strong Super Bowl contenders every season. The Atlanta Falcons should not go unnoticed any longer. Mike Smith along with QB Matt Ryan will have their team in the Super Bowl discussion for a long time to come.
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