It seems like ages ago that I and many other Falcons fans were beginning to have that sickening feeling deep down inside: Will Mike Vick be able to lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl? For so many years I had debated and rationalized why Vick could and would be the quarterback to get the Falcons to their first Super Bowl since 1998, but with every year that passed with little to no progression from Vick and the same disappointing losses in the playoffs after the magical win over Brett Favre and the Packers at Lambeau Field I began to wonder if Vick had what it took to win a Super Bowl. It sounds like revisionist history now, but the year before Bobby Petrino was hired I had given up almost all hope. I wasn’t convinced that Vick was going to put the time in to improve and without that I was convinced the Falcons would keep losing in the playoffs to teams with the athleticism to keep Vick in the pocket and force him to make accurate, on time throws (like the Eagles, for example). Petrino was hired and I was very, very skeptical. He had just signed a 10 year, $25.6 million extension with the Cardinals that suggested he was getting significant interest from other schools and Louisville wanted to make an obvious commitment to him to fend them off. He signed  that contract on July 13th, 2006. On January 7th, 2007, not even a full 6 months after he signed a 10 year extension, he became the new Head Coach of the Atlanta Falcons. I thought he was a snake, but he had an impressive track record on the offensive side of the ball and Vick’s strong arm would seemingly be a great fit in his system. Then the entire team came crashing down after Vick was indicted on dog fighting charges and suddenly every Falcon fan was longing for the better days when Vick would drop his eyes before going through his progressions, scramble and somehow avoid a sack to extend a drive. As bad as that season was, I honestly thought it was a necessary cleanse. The Falcons never would have cut Vick with that contract unless something like that happened, and I was more than convinced the Falcons weren’t going to win a Super Bowl with Vick at the helm. If we wanted to win a Super Bowl, as hard as it was, we needed to get a new quarterback. I never really anticipated seeing Vick go that abruptly, but it opened the door to a bevy of possibilities. As we all know, Petrino confirmed my suspicions and ditched the Falcons and all of his players before the season was over (again, less than a year after he became the head coach) to accept the same position at Arkansas.

You might all be wondering what this has to do with this season’s Falcons. Vick hasn’t been on the roster for years, and most Falcon fans are glad they got rid of Petrino (myself included). But after so many years of wondering if we had a quarterback and a roster that could make a run at a Super Bowl, this year I truly believe that we can. The reason I’m writing this article, however, is because I believe that if we don’t win one this year we might not have another good chance for a few years.

Now you are probably really confused. “This team is 13-2 and they’re in the playoffs year in and year out with Mike Smith at the helm and Matt Ryan at quarterback. Who is this guy?” The answer to that question is I am a guy who has been advocating for the Falcons to draft a dynamic tight end to learn from Tony Gonzalez for three years to no avail. The answer to that question is I am a guy who has been begging the Falcons to draft a pass rusher who has the potential to replace John Abraham once he inevitably starts to slow down and become less effective. The answer to that question is I am a guy who has taken a look at the upcoming free agents the Falcons will have to try and re-sign this offseason, and it’s a significant list.

The Falcons team this year is a team that feels like a team that can win a Super Bowl to me though. They have gotten breaks when they’ve needed them, they have won close games without playing their best, and they have beaten teams that have given them issues in the past (most notably the New York Giants, but also the New Orleans Saints). Not only that, but they have evolved from a team that protects Matt Ryan with the running game to a team that throws the ball to compensate for Turner’s ineffectiveness that I hope will lead to his release this offseason. They have also evolved from a team that could barely stop anyone on defense to a team who forces a lot of turnovers and can win games with their defense. That is the biggest difference this year, and that is one reason why I think this is the year they need to win.

If the Falcons don’t win this year they are going to have some pieces to replace, some depth to replenish, and probably some front office personnel and coaches to replace. Mike Nolan has transformed this defense from a middle of the road defense into an aggressive, turnover forcing machine. I personally believe he has been one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL this year, if not the best. But now that he has done such a great job with the Falcons defense there are going to be teams that will consider giving him another shot at being a Head Coach, and he deserves those opportunities. But if the Falcons lose him their defense will not be the same. Their front office has done a great job drafting as of late as well, and that has led to David Caldwell reportedly garnering interest from teams that will need a new General Manager. Losing him would certainly be a significant blow to the Falcons front office.

On the field the Falcons have a lot of potential issues to manage as well. Brent Grimes is coming off of a serious Achilles injury that plenty of great athletes haven’t come all the way back from, and he is a free agent after the Falcons were unable to reach a long-term agreement with him on an extension that led to them using the franchise tag on him (and ultimately losing Curtis Lofton in free agency to the Saints). The Falcons likely won’t feel comfortable giving him a huge long term deal, and Grimes will want more than a one or two year trial contract. If they weren’t able to come to an agreement last year before his injury I don’t see any reason they will all of a sudden see eye to eye on his value this year. If you follow me on Twitter you are well aware that I am not a fan of Dunta Robinson and I would much rather have Grimes than Robinson, but Robinson already got a big contract and according to www.spotrac.com (@spotrac) he is due $8 million in 2013, $10 million in 2014 and $11.5 million in 2015. I would be very surprised if they paid him the final $21.5 million they owe him on that contract, but regardless of that they already have a lot of money tied up in him and probably aren’t ready to sign Grimes to a big contract after his injury even if he deserves to get paid much more than Robinson does.

Not only is Grimes a free agent, but Tony Gonzalez is a free agent and he is very likely going to retire. The Falcons are lucky to have had him for this long, and for some reason they wouldn’t draft a quality tight end prospect (I was pounding the table for Aaron Hernandez since I had a 1st round grade on him) to be his heir apparent. Well now they are faced with Gonzalez’ retirement and his back-up tight end is Michael Palmer. Palmer is not the long-term answer, and he’s certainly not going to replace Gonzalez’ impact on the passing game that Matt Ryan has gotten used to the last three years. On top of that, Sam Baker is an unrestricted free agent (UFA), his back-up Will Svitek is a UFA, old man river Todd McClure is a UFA, and William Moore is a UFA. Key reserves like Chris Hope and Mike Peterson are UFA’s as well. The Falcons don’t have a replacement on the roster for Grimes (though I have been very happy with how Robert McClain has played this year), Gonzalez, or William Moore, and McClure’s heir apparent Peter Konz has spent the majority of the year getting beat at right guard, including an embarrassing showing against Ndamukong Suh on Saturday night against the Lions.

There’s certainly nothing stopping the Falcons from retaining Baker, Svitek, Grimes, Moore, McClure, Hope and Peterson, but McClure and Peterson are getting very long in the tooth, Baker has been an average starter his entire career, Svitek isn’t the answer at left tackle, and I’ve already detailed some of the potential issues with locking Grimes up. These aren’t cornerstone players, but losing Grimes and Moore would be devastating long term for this secondary, and the Falcons’ offensive line isn’t good enough to deal with losing one or more starters without a significant upgrade. Not only that, but even though John Abraham is under contract through 2014 with a modest salary of $3.25 million for both 2013 and 2014 he is unlikely to continue to play at this high level for much longer and the Falcons have not secured a suitable replacement for him either. Lawrence Sidbury was drafted to hopefully develop into a quality pass rusher but he has been an absolute non-factor his entire career in Atlanta, and even though Jonathan Massaquoi has some upside he fell to the 6th round because his production dropped off considerably the year before he declared for the draft. Hopefully slimming back down to his sophomore weight will help him develop into a quality option, but I’m also not holding my breath for him to become the caliber of player that Abraham has been for the Falcons all these years. That means the Falcons will be facing some tough decisions this offseason, but luckily for them this draft class figures to have some high end tight end talent and has a bevy of pass rushing depth. The Falcons would be very wise to look at TE and DE in the first two rounds this year in my opinion.

I don’t mean to write a doom and gloom article, because it’s very conceivable that the Falcons retain the key free agents they need to sign and I would assume they will retain restricted free agents like Robert McClain, Vance Walker and Michael Palmer. But it’s also entirely possible that they balk at Grimes’ contract demands, lose Tony Gonzalez to retirement, and lose one or more of their quality free agents this upcoming offseason. The impact Gonzalez has can’t be understated, and if Abraham’s play starts to drop off the Falcons’ pass rush will be a serious problem that will only be rectified by daring blitz packages that will risk exposing the secondary in coverage.

So, long story short, the stars have aligned for the Falcons this year. The bounces are going their way, they have home field in the playoffs, Matt Ryan has plenty of weapons to throw to and the defense is the best it has been in years. Here’s hoping the Falcons go all the way this year, but if they don’t it could be a little while before they have a shot to go back.