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Falcons ready for season of heightened expectations
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Chris Redman (8) is flushed out of the pocket by Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Freddy Keiaho (54) during the first half of a preseason NFL football game in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010. Jacksonville beat Atlanta 13-9. - photo by Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons don't have to answer that same ol' question: Hey, guys, when are y'all actually going to have two winning seasons in a row?

Yet it's the way they view getting a 44-year-long monkey off their backs that provides the best insight into why this long-suffering franchise may have finally turned the corner.

Coach Mike Smith isn't happy about going 9-7. Neither are his players. They came up short of their goals for 2009, which were getting back to the playoffs and going even deeper than they did the year before.

The Falcons will resume that quest Sunday, when they open a season of high expectations against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"We feel like we can take that next step," receiver Roddy White said Monday, relaxing at his locker after practice. "Everyone wants to take that next step. Everyone is doing what it takes to get there."

That just the sort of attitude that Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff wanted to instill when they were handed the keys to a franchise in disarray after the 2007 season.

They refused to give in to the team's history, which to that point included only one lasting highlight (reaching the Super Bowl in 1999) and a whole lot of lowlights. They refused to accept that it would take years to rebuild from the loss of the team's signature player, Michael Vick, and the defection of its previous coach, Bobby Petrino.

Two years ago, a team picked to win three or four games at the most went 11-5 and claimed a playoff berth. Atlanta fans had been through it all before: a surprising season quickly followed by more disappointment. And, indeed, the Falcons seemed headed for a losing season when a rash of injuries ruined their playoff hopes and left then at 6-7 with three games to go.

But Matt Ryan returned from an ailing toe to lead three straight wins, including a road victory against the New York Jets, and one of sport's most ignominious streaks finally came to an end.

In the past, two straight winning seasons might've been reason enough to hold a ticker-tape parade.

Not anymore.

"The season definitely didn't go the way we wanted it to go," linebacker Mike Peterson said. "We did have a winning season, so it was good to hang our hats on something. But as far as the season as a whole, and for me personally, we definitely didn't reach the goals we wanted to reach."

Still, there's no denying that a stigma was lifted from this franchise by the last three games of 2009.

White realizes that. Heading into his sixth season with the Falcons, he's on his fourth head coach and certainly hasn't forgotten the 4-12 debacle that occurred after Vick was caught running a dogfighting ring.

"It was a big thing for us, especially for the organization and the people upstairs," White said. "They all wanted to get that monkey off our back. Matt coming back and playing those last couple of games was really good for us and our confidence. It showed no one gave up. Everybody still wanted to win, even if we couldn't go to the playoffs. That was big for our team."

But again, no one seems satisfied. That's just what Smith wants to hear, because he certainly doesn't consider missing the playoffs to be a success, no matter what other factors were at work.

"We didn't reach our expectations last season," he said. "Other than that, I really don't have a whole lot of thoughts about it."

The Falcons have more than enough offensive weapons to keep playing deep into January. Ryan had a bit of a sophomore slump, but no one denies he's the new face of the franchise. Michael Turner is healthier and expecting to carry the bulk of the running load again. White and Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez are two enticing weapons in the passing game.

The key is defense. Atlanta ranked 24th in the NFL in yards allowed two years ago, and not much better (21st) last season. Dimitroff has tried to bulk up on that side of the ball through the draft (most notably, linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon, this year's No. 1 pick) and the major free-agent signing of this past offseason, cornerback Dunta Robinson.

"I don't want to put any pressure on us," Peterson said, "but this team is going to go as far as this defense. If the defense is playing well, this team will be playing well."

The Falcons are a popular pick to be this year's surprise team, even though they play in the same division as the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.

Those sort of expectations are just what Robinson had in mind when he signed with Atlanta.

"These guys — the organization, coach Smith, Thomas Dimitroff — they've come in and done a great job," the cornerback said. "That's something I definitely wanted to be a part of."