The Atlanta Falcons clinched the #2 seed in the NFC with their 38-32 week 17 win over the Saints. The Falcons’ explosive offense scored a touchdown on it’s first five possessions. The unit showed once again Sunday the kind of dominance they have displayed all season. The Falcons’ offense ranks first in a number of categories including points per game and yards per play and have dominated with a perfectly orchestrated versatile attack.
Last season, the Falcons desperately needed help across the offensive line and also needed to add a threat to keep pressure off Julio Jones. Matt Ryan was rarely afforded time to go through his progressions, and even when he did have time, Julio Jones was the only receiver who was able to get open in Shanahan’s offense. The combination of these things led to numerous turnovers and an offense that ultimately collapsed over the course of the season.
Atlanta chose to attack those needs on the offensive end over the needs that were perhaps more numerous on the defensive end during the offseason. They signed Pro-bowl center Alex Mack to a five year deal and added talented receiver Mohammed Sanu on a five year deal as well. The two have fit like a glove into this offense, and made the collective unit perhaps the single most dominant force in all of football this year.
Alex Mack has arguably been the most important free agent acquisition for any team this season. He has just been stellar all year long and has solidified a Falcons offensive line that desperately needed a leader. This Falcons offensive line has been able to avoid injuries all season long, and that continuity has allowed for them to get marginally better as the season has gone on. Atlanta’s line is now one of the best in football and has allowed for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta’s two-headed rushing attack, to run all over opposing defenses. If the line has a weakness, it is in pass protection. The Falcons have given up 37 sacks this year, which ranks 21st in the NFL. However, Kyle Shanahan has done a great job keeping defenses off guard, which usually allows for Ryan plenty of time in the pocket.
It is not like Ryan needs it. The MVP candidate has done an amazing job getting the ball out quickly and efficiently to all of his receivers. Ryan leads the league in yards per completion at 9.2, and second in total touchdowns, total yards and completion percentage. Some might think this is mostly because star receiver Julio Jones or all of the other talent around Ryan, but that is simply not the case. Ryan has dominated no matter who has been on the field with him. When Julio Jones was out with a foot injury, he turned Taylor Gabriel into a rising star. When teams have opted to double Julio Jones, Ryan has avoided forcing the ball to him like he did many times last year. Instead he spreads the ball to his other receivers and he does it very well. Ryan set an NFL record for number of touchdowns thrown to different receivers, with 13 different Falcons catching touchdown passes. He also set a career low for interceptions with 7. People expecting a drop off to this kind of production come playoff time are going to be in for a surprise. Ryan is as comfortable as ever, in one of the most dynamic offenses the league has ever seen. This offense is going to put up a lot of points, but it is the defense that is going to have to step up if the Falcons want to win Super Bowl LI.
Atlanta’s defense has been the weak spot for this team for quite some time. Dan Quinn was brought in to fix the defense, and when looking at the numbers, they have not gotten much better. Atlanta ranks 25th in total defense and 27th in points per game at 25.4. However, there is reason to hope for this Falcons defense. Quinn has not opted to sign big name defensive free agents. Instead he has begun to build his defense through the draft.
Vic Beasley Jr. was the team’s first round draft pick in 2015. After a quiet rookie season, Beasley has exploded into a superstar in year two. He leads the NFL with 15.5 sacks and has become a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Keanu Neal and Deion Jones were the Falcons’ first two picks in last year’s draft. Keanu Neal has 106 total tackles, second on the team to fellow rookie Deion Jones who has 108 tackles. Neal also tied the rookie record with 5 forced fumbles on the season, while Jones leads the team in interceptions with 3. Both are NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates. These three players are going to be great for a long time, and in just a short time, they have already become the leaders of the defense.
Overall, the Falcons will be starting six players in the playoffs that Quinn has drafted in the two years he has been here. They are quickly getting better and better each week and have been dramatically better statistically since their bye week. Atlanta’s defense has only given up 20.5 poinst per game in their 6 games since the bye. The biggest question mark is second year cornerback from LSU Jalen Collins, who has served as the replacement to Pro-bowl corner Desmond Trufant. Teams will continue to target Collins throughout the playoffs, but he has been up to the task thus far. If he can continue to give the Falcons good play, this defense can get enough stops to win a Super Bowl.
Lastly, the Falcons have something that they might even take for granted sometimes. They have the best kicker in the playoffs in Matt Bryant. At 41, Bryant has been an excellent kicker for a long time, but he had perhaps the best season of his career this season. He was 34 for 37 (91.9%) on field goals and missed just a single extra point all season (56/57). Bryant has also been as clutch as clutch gets since taking over as kicker for the Falcons, as he most memorably sent the Falcons to the NFC championship game in 2012 on a 49-yard game winning field goal.
The Falcons are a few defensive upgrades from being a nearly perfect team. But in a year where there is not a perfect team, the Falcons are just as capable as anyone to finally break through and win their franchises’s first Super Bowl. Matt Ryan may have already earned his first MVP award. Atlanta will go as far as he takes them. The pressure is on for Ryan, who is just 1-4 in playoff games, but this time it seems as if he is up to the task. The Falcons are hot at the right time and could be the most dangerous team in the NFC.