The Atlanta Falcons were within one game of the Super Bowl in 2012. In 2013, the team fell well short of lofty expectations with a disappointing 4-12 record. This season, the Falcons will look to prove their first losing season under coach Mike Smith was simply an anomaly and reach the playoffs for the fourth time in the past six years.
A key to the Falcons struggles last season were the injuries to wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. White entered the season playing with an injured ankle and proceeded to post his lowest marks in both receptions and receiving yards since 2006, while appearing in 13 games. Jones, one of the best young receivers in the league, was off to a strong start in 2013 - 41 catches for 580 yards - before being sidelined for the season after five games with a foot injury.
Now, White and Jones have set high expectations on themselves for the year ahead, setting a goal of 1,500 receiving yards each - which would be an NFL record for a receiving duo.
"We're just putting it out there," Jones said in training camp. "I always tell people, every year, I never put goals on myself, because I don't want to limit myself. What I set out to do, I'm going to do it, but I don't want to limit myself, because I don't know what I'm capable of doing, so I don't want to put an exact number on me. We're just putting that number out there, because we possibly can do that, just because of all the rule changes and everything else."
The "rule changes" Jones cited is the league's initiative to cut down on defensive backs using their hands against wide receivers through an increase in defensive holding and illegal contact penalties. However, Jones' main focus when it comes to reaching history with White should be on staying healthy. In three NFL seasons, Jones has played in all 16 of the Falcons' regular season games once.
Jones' career-high in yards is 1,198, while White's is 1,389.
The Falcons premier duo will face less competition for the ball this season, though. Tight end Tony Gonzales, who caught 80 or more passes in each of the past three seasons, retired in the offseason and his replacement - whether it be sophomore Levine Toilolo or veteran Bear Pascoe - has never caught more than 12 passes in a season.
The Falcons receiving corps is filled out with slot receiver Harry Douglas, who led the group in catches and yards in 2013, and free agent acquisition Devin Hester.
If quarterback Matt Ryan's two top targets can stay healthy this season, it won't guarantee 1,500 yards for White and Jones, but it may be key in the Falcons regaining their Super Bowl contender form.
Rookie on Display: After starting left tackle Sam Baker was lost for the season with a knee injury in the preseason, the Falcons made the decision to start their first-round pick, Jake Matthews, at the position. Matthews opened training camp as the starter at right tackle, but will face added pressure protecting the Falcons franchise quarterback's blindside.
Adding Up Front: The Falcons rushing defence ranked second-worst in the league last season, allowing an average of 135.8 yards on the ground per game. In an effort to improve on that mark, the Falcons signed defensive lineman Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson in free agency and drafted Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round of the draft. The team will also benefit from the return of defensive end Kroy Biermann, who missed all but two games last season.