Is it playoffs or bust for 2023 Falcons?

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It’s been a five-year playoff drought for the Falcons, who haven’t played meaningful football in January since the 2017 season.

Since going on a magical Super Bowl run in 2016, Atlanta has struggled mightily, culminating in 2020 with Dan Quinn’s final season. At the direction of Arthur Blank, Thomas Dimitroff continued to push the club’s chips in for one last shot with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and other overpriced veterans. It failed.

Blank finally pulled the plug after an 0-5 start and hired a new regime that offseason. Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot took over, experiencing minimal success with back-to-back 7-10 campaigns.

It shouldn’t be considered an underachievement, given the state of the roster, which had a record-breaking amount of dead money on the books. There just weren’t many expectations. All of that changes in 2023.

The Falcons are out from underneath the weight of the prior regime’s mistakes and have retooled the roster with their own guys. Armed with a mountain of cap space this offseason, Fontenot and Smith bolstered the depth chart, completely overhauling the defense, specifically the front, which has long been a sore spot for this club.

Dare I say… is it playoffs or bust for the Falcons?

It’s time to put up or shut up for this regime. A combination of the best roster and the worst division in their tenures motivates this take.

The Falcons went out and added playmakers at all three levels of the defense. Jessie Bates III was the gem of the free agent class and will command the backend. Kaden Elliss bolsters the second level, but the front is where the most significant changes came. David Onyemata and Calais Campbell headline the defensive line additions.

The top-end talent is obvious, but the depth across the board is notable. Mike Hughes, Jeff Okudah, and Clark Phillips join the cornerback room. Eddie Goldman, Lorenzo Carter, and Bud Dupree join the defensive front. The Falcons have 12+ across the line of scrimmage, all of whom can rush the passer in some capacity.

It’s by far the best defense since Smith and Fontenot took over.

The offense is also improved from a year ago. Addition by subtraction rings true at quarterback, with Desmond Ridder in and Marcus Mariota out. Kyle Pitts is back and healthy. Drake London looks to continue building his rapport with Ridder. The Falcons also acquired Jonnu Smith, who had his best seasons under Arthur Smith in Tennessee.

Bijan Robinson joins an already loaded running back room, which features 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Allgeier and Swiss Army Knife Cordarrelle Patterson. Most importantly, the offensive line returns four of five starters, with a second-round pick in Matthew Bergeron expected to seize the starting left guard role. Continuity is an understated aspect of successful offensive lines.

The roster has dramatically improved, but it’s not just what’s happened inside Flowery Branch; the NFC South is wide open.

The Saints are the odds-on favorites to take the division, but the Falcons aren’t far behind. New Orleans has long had a superior roster than Atlanta, particularly in the trenches; that is no longer the case. I’d argue the Falcons are better along the line of scrimmage, but even if they aren’t, the Saints are only marginally better.

Not even the most die-hard fans in the Big Easy should believe in Dennis Allen; he failed with the Raiders and has shown no ability to lead a football team with the Saints. Arthur Smith is still learning but will always be the superior head coach, given his innate ability to design and call plays.

I believe Vegas likes the Saints more because Derek Carr is by far the best quarterback in the division. That is why folks in New Orleans should be confident. There isn’t a signal caller even close to Carr. A lot of Atlanta’s hope hinge on Desmond Ridder.

Thankfully, the team is built to rely minimally on Ridder. Arthur Smith’s offense isn’t going to ask the former third-round pick to drop back, make a ton of reads, and throw it 40 times a game. Run the ball, scheme pass catchers open, play defense, and don’t put too much on Ridder’s plate. Still, it’s the NFL, and the Falcons will need him to take a step forward from his four-game sample size.

The Falcons have enough firepower to challenge the Saints for the division, and I think, unlike other seasons under the new regime, the fans will have a legitimate gripe if the club doesn’t make the postseason.

Photographer: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

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