Can the Falcons make the Super Bowl?

After a loss to New Orleans on Sunday, a lot of people started to write off Atlanta as “the same old Falcons."

You know, the team that can’t win the big one. The team that hasn’t won a single playoff game since the arrivals of coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008.

I’m not jumping on that bandwagon because, despite what happened Sunday, I think this is a different Atlanta team. I think the Falcons are going to the Super Bowl.

That belief doesn’t stem simply from the fact that I have to pick one NFC South team to reach the Super Bowl for this post. I honestly believe the Falcons will reach the Super Bowl, and I think what happened against the Saints will help get them there.

The close loss to their biggest rival might be just what the Falcons needed to start moving toward their full potential. That’s something they hadn’t done in their first eight games. They came into New Orleans undefeated, but too many of those victories were close calls against inferior teams.

The Falcons might be the most talented team in football, but they’ve put together only a couple of complete games this season. For a bit, that had me wondering whether they really were the same old Falcons. I was starting to wonder whether Smith was the second coming of Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay just over a decade ago -- too nice of a guy to be able to win the big ones.

But I like the way Smith reacted to the loss in New Orleans. On Monday, the Falcons released highly paid but underachieving defensive end Ray Edwards. They did the same sort of thing the week before when they released starting fullback Lousaka Polite.

Edwards and Polite simply weren’t getting the job done. In the past, Smith might have turned a blind eye. But this isn’t last year.

Much has been made about how new coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan have brought a new attitude on both sides of the ball. There’s some truth to that.

But the biggest change of all is Smith. In a league where nice guys finish last, or at least lose in the playoffs, Smith is taking a tougher approach.

That’s sending a clear message to the Falcons that the status quo isn’t good enough. Smith knows it and the players know it, and that’s why the Falcons will reach the Super Bowl.