The Atlanta Falcons have never been in this position. For the first time in the history of the franchise, people actually expect this team to be in the Super Bowl.
Fans have hoped the Falcons would play for the Lombardi Trophy before, like last season, but disappointment always ensued. This is different. It’s all-or-nothing, Super Bowl-or-bust this year.
The idea is the Falcons just don’t need to get there, but to win it. The roster is finally good enough that they should be in the conversation when analysts wonder who could contend for the championship. And the fans are just hungry, desperate for this team to win it all.
There are concerns, mainly on the offensive line, that make it difficult to believe everything has finally fallen into place. The injury last week to Mike Johnson killed the depth at right tackle, to the point where they are looking at an undrafted free agent offensive tackle from Valdosta State (Ryan Schraeder) who might actually start.
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Sure, they had an undrafted Blazers player named Jessie Tuggle who did pretty well for about 14 seasons, but we’re talking about a team on the cusp of a Super Bowl. Will having someone just walk in, without being drafted, and taking on the starting right offensive tackle position actually cut it?
Lamar Holmes was a third round pick last year, but he took only seven snaps during the regular season. Holmes will be the favorite to replace Johnson, but if he’s beaten out by an undrafted free agent, that will say a lot about Holmes’ potential -- or lack thereof.
Then there’s Garrett Reynolds, who looks more like a tackle but is once again -- for the third August in a row -- penciled in as the starting offensive right guard. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy for the past two seasons, but this year he has to or the Falcons are going to be in trouble.
Do Super Bowl contenders have two huge questions on the offensive line? Not often.
There are not many questions elsewhere on the offense. They’ve got a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, along with a beast at running back with Steven Jackson, who can catch the ball and add yet another option for Ryan. Then there’s tight end Tony Gonzalez, as well as Roddy White and Julio Jones at wide receiver. Is there a better combination of skill players in the NFL?
Then you turn to the defense, and it’s logical to wonder if anyone is going to be able to stop the out-of-control tight ends this season. Remember, that’s what happened last year, and it almost cost the Falcons in the playoff game with Seattle and hurt tremendously the next week against San Francisco.
The two new cornerbacks, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, are learning everyday as they battle White and Jones in practice. That has to help in their development. Plus, the depth on the defensive line looks real solid.
Osi Umenyiora replaces John Abraham, and perhaps he only does as well as Abraham did last season. But he’s a presence on the line of scrimmage, and it doesn’t hurt that Umenyiora has two Super Bowl rings to show his new teammates.
Look out for two players who could really help on the line of scrimmage. Cliff Matthews has bulked up and could help both at tackle and at end. And Jonathan Massoquoi was very good last week in the first preseason game. If those two realize their potential, the Falcons might have a dominant -- yes, a dominant -- defensive line.
They’ll need to have one. The offense will score points, but defense wins championships. This team is close, and while the dominoes have to fall in place just about perfectly for it to happen, the Falcons might be ready to finally give the fans what they’ve wanted for so long.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.