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 monkey off their backs that provides the best insight into why the franchise might 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 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. "Everyone wants to take that next step. Everyone is doing what it takes to get there."
Two years ago, a team picked to win three or four games at 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. 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 consecutive wins, and one of sport's most ignominious streaks finally came to an end.
In the past, back-to-back winning seasons might have been reason enough to celebrate. 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."
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 Tony Gonzalez are two enticing weapons in the passing game.
The key is defense. Atlanta ranked 24th in the league in yards allowed two years ago, and not much better (21st) last season. Dimitroff has tried to bulk up through the draft (most notably, linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon, this year's No. 1 pick) and the major free-agent signing of the 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."