The Atlanta Falcons won 13 games and earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Unfortunately the home-field advantage gained by that feat turned out to be nothing more than a wasted opportunity.
The Falcons got shellacked, 48-21, by Green Bay in the divisional round, prompting immediate cries by armchair quarterbacks for upgrades all through the roster.
Upgrades are needed, absolutely, but it is not the makeup of ownership or management to make radical changes because the Falcons picked the wrong time to get stage fright. Most of the pieces are in place to make a run at a fourth consecutive winning season and a third playoff berth in four years. Again most of the pieces.
The team is hardly complete, though, so let's examine where things are headed:
1. When will defense turn the corner?
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has used his last two first-round draft picks on defensive players and spent a wealth of selections trying to upgrade that side of the ball. DT Peria Jerry and OLB Sean Weatherspoon have not been healthy enough to show if those were wise choices. The Falcons also guaranteed CB Dunta Robinson $23 million in free agency last season but it took him a long time before he started playing to his potential. The secondary remains vulnerable -- especially depth wise -- and the line is far from top-notch. While DE John Abraham is a monster, there is no overall ruggedness among the front. Atlanta needs to find a defensive identity, but don't count on it spending big in free agency again to do so. This could remain a work in progress.
2. Is Ryan an elite quarterback?
We saw the difference between an elite quarterback and a good one when Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers dissected the Falcons with his arm and legs, while Matt Ryan struggled to do much when forced to improvise. Ryan is good and can be elite. He's not there yet. Even though Ryan doesn't have great arm strength, he has to work on ways to stretch the field and be more decisive. It will come in time, but if he fails to get Atlanta to the playoffs or is one and done for a third time, there will be a lot more criticism than there is now.
3. Is a game-breaker missing?
Wide receiver Roddy White has game-breaking potential but teams know that and did things to limit him as a deep threat as the season progressed. Running back Jerious Norwood is a big-play threat but he's often injured. Although Atlanta does need to look at adding a multi-threat player in the draft, it is not a top priority. What is somewhat perplexing is that wide receiver Eric Weems returned three punts or kickoffs for touchdowns -- that's big-play talent -- but was rarely involved in the offense.
4. Are reinforcements needed?
Yes. While Tony Gonzalez might not retire this offseason, he won't be playing much longer. Atlanta really needs to look at a versatile tight end that is a threat in the passing game, especially since the position is now back in vogue as a scoring option. The Falcons also need to get a change-of-pace back for Michel Turner. Jason Snelling is a great backup, but he could be a free agent and might look for work where he could get more touches. That's unlikely but you don't know. If the Falcons could draft a smaller, speed back in the middle or late rounds, they might be able to spare Turner and diversify their offense.
5. Can Falcons stay ahead of competition?
They could. The nucleus is young and Ryan will continue to get better because he works harder than anyone on the team. However, the Falcons stayed very healthy this season, particularly at key positions. That's hard to do year in and year out. Atlanta's schedule will be tougher and it is no longer invincible at home. Coach Mike Smith has put together three straight winning seasons, so the formula is there but that type of success isn't easy to sustain.