The Atlanta Falcons have made a habit of reaching the playoffs.
That's not good enough anymore.
A few days after the Falcons were routed by the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in a wild-card game last season, owner Arthur Blank summoned general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith for what amounted to a humbling public apology.
The message was clear: Blank expects a championship.
Anything else will be considered a failure.
''The message to the guys is to be a better team this year than we were last year across the board,'' Smith said recently. ''If we reach that goal, we're going to like where we're at.''
In a sense, the disappointment over 2011 is a sign of just how far the Falcons have come under the current regime.
When Dimitroff and Smith were hired four years ago, they inherited a mess of a franchise that was trying to recover from the Michael Vick fiasco. The Falcons had never ever put together back-to-back winning seasons, much less two consecutive trips to the playoffs. Since then, they've had four straight winning records and three postseason appearances.
But this group has yet to win a playoff game, and Blank is clearly getting impatient.
A year ago, the Falcons were touted as a Super Bowl contender, coming off a 13-win season and a division championship. But the offense never seemed to click on all cylinders, despite the addition of rookie receiver Julio Jones, and Atlanta slipped into the playoffs as a wild card. It was another short appearance, the Giants romping to a 24-2 victory and holding the Falcons' offense off the scoreboard.
''Anytime you get there and you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing and you're losing, it kind of (stinks),'' receiver Roddy White said. ''You go back and watch the tape and see a lot of things you could've done differently. You want to go back and play the game all over again, but you can't. So you just get ready for the next year.''
Well, next year's here.
Even though Blank hinted at major changes, the Falcons return with basically the same roster, just a little tinkering here and there (such as the recent signing of quarterback Luke McCown, who takes over as the top backup behind Matt Ryan). Cornerback Asante Samuel was the only major player addition, the other big changes coming on the coaching staff.
Smith hired two new coordinators: former NFL coach Mike Nolan to run the defense, taking over after Brian VanGorder returned to the college ranks as Auburn's defense coordinator, and Dirk Koetter to take over the offense from Mike Mularkey, who left for the coaching job in Jacksonville.
''We have to step up because we have the team,'' said tight end Tony Gonzalez, who came back for his 16th season, still chasing that elusive Super Bowl ring. ''If we can stay healthy and pick up where we left off last year and improve with the new offense and the new defense, it's going to be exciting for us. We've got the players on offense and defense.''
There's certainly no lack of weapons on offense. When Ryan drops back to pass, he can look to a dynamic outside duo (White and Jones) or go with a shorter route to a future Hall of Famer (Gonzalez). Michael Turner is showing a bit of wear and tear but still rushed for 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns. Jacquizz Rodgers is only 5-foot-6, but he could get more playing time to take some of the load off Turner.
Of course, as with every team in the NFL, the Falcons' season will likely come down to what they get out of the most important position on the field.
Ryan has developed into one of the league's top quarterbacks, but he won't be in the same class as the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world until he wins a championship or, at the very least, a playoff game. Over his first four years, Matty Ice has completed nearly 61 percent in the regular season, with more than twice as many touchdowns (95) as interceptions (46) and a cumulative rating of 88.4. He put up career-best numbers in 2011, throwing for 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns.
''We've got a real good quarterback,'' White said. ''When you've got a guy under center who's consistent and brings his `A' game every week, you can win a lot of games. This is a quarterback-driven league. When you've got a good one, you've got a chance.''
The playoffs are a different matter, though. Ryan has passed for less than 200 yards per game in his three postseason losses, with just three touchdowns, four interceptions and a significantly lower rating (71.2). Gonzalez believes Ryan is poised for a breakout season and postseason. The key will be getting better protection from the offensive line, which allowed the face of the franchise to get hit far too often a year ago.
''For quarterbacks, it goes about five or six years before they really come into their own from what I've seen. I'm talking about the great ones, too,'' Gonzalez said. ''That is what's happening with Matt here. He's gone the normal progression. We expect big things out of him, but we also understand that we're all in it, and we've got to take care of our part to go out there and get open for him.''
The Falcons traded for Samuel to team with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, giving the Falcons a trio of top pass defenders a must playing in the same division with Drew Brees of New Orleans and Cam Newton of Carolina.
Nolan will try to scheme away the Falcons' weaknesses, which included a lackluster pass rush. Defensive end John Abraham, for one, believes VanGorder's scheme became too predictable. He's looking forward to getting more opportunities to get to the quarterback with Nolan doling out a variety of blitz and pressure packages.
Of course, none of that will matter if the Falcons don't win in the postseason.
''Our whole thing is what we do in the playoffs,'' Abraham said. ''We've shown we can get there, but that's not enough and we know it. We've got to get in there and win one game and then move on.''
Associated Press Writer George Henry contributed to this report.
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