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Falcons' chance to measure progress

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Dan Parr
Associate editor

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Posted Oct. 07, 2011 @ 10:05 p.m. ET
By Dan Parr

The Falcons, PFW's preseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, are off to a slow start at 2-2.

Matt Ryan is taking too many hits playing behind an offensive line that has been shaky at best, and the team is making mistakes more frequently than we're used to seeing under head coach Mike Smith, but the Falcons couldn't ask for a better opportunity to shake it off than the game awaiting them in Week Five.

The phrase "statement game" is overused, but the Falcons' next game will be one, regardless of the outcome.

About nine months after the Packers embarrassed them, the Falcons will be looking for validation Sunday when the defending Super Bowl champions — who have won their last 10 games (including playoffs) — return to the Georgia Dome for the first time since Jan. 15. Green Bay demolished Atlanta 48-21 that day, humiliating a Falcons team that had posted the NFC's best record, in front of its home crowd in the divisional playoffs.

We know — it's only Week Five. Playoff atmosphere or not, this is the regular season, and the result Sunday doesn't have to define the Falcons' season, although it could.

After winning 13 games in 2010 and beating some good teams along the way, the Falcons were exposed vs. Green Bay in the playoffs. The lack of a postseason win during the Smith-Ryan era will hang over them, no matter how much regular-season success they have, but they can't control the calendar. Some league observers are wondering what all the preseason buzz was about, and the Falcons still need to prove to the league, and themselves, that they aren't going to be pushed around by elite teams.

Owner Arthur Blank gave GM Thomas Dimitroff the green light to make big moves this offseason. Blank badly wants to win, and Dimitroff didn't disappoint. He kept the core of the team in place but paid a huge price to move up in the draft to select WR Julio Jones sixth overall and paid significant money to sign free-agent DE Ray Edwards.

The loss to Green Bay last postseason had a profound effect on the Falcons' restructuring this offseason as Dimitroff set out to make his team more explosive and, well, more like the Packers.

Three weeks after that game, we caught up with Dimitroff in the Super Bowl media center, and he reflected on what happened against the Packers.

"To me, it was just another stage of maturity in the growth of this relatively young football team," he said. "In the end, it's going to help our growth and our confidence level, and it's going to help the element of realistic thinking for this team to know that we're going to have to work every second of every game into the playoffs to have a chance to win playoff games in this league."

Dimitroff attended the Super Bowl a few days later, but he later said he realized about 10 minutes into the game that he had made a mistake and left at halftime.

It's nine months later, but don't tell me that loss to the Packers didn't leave a scar that is still pretty fresh in the memories of Dimitroff and the Falcons.

Sunday can be the time when they begin the payback for the pain, or it will serve as a devastating blow to a team desperate to find out exactly where it stands against the league's best. 

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