Why under-the-radar Falcons and these sleepers could surprise in 2019

A few recent Super Bowl entrants barely resemble their ultimate-game versions. The Seahawks, Panthers and Broncos hover at different retooling stages, well off the level of their championship-caliber teams. Another franchise that claimed a mid-2010s conference title isn’t far from its 21st-century apex but is being treated as one whose contention window is nearly shut.

Bovada views nine NFC teams as more likely to win Super Bowl LIV than the Falcons. While the franchise that won the 2016 NFC Championship should not be regarded as a 2019 favorite, based on events last season, its current iteration looks much closer to contender than lower-middle class operation.

Slotted ahead of the Falcons entering training camps: the Packers, Vikings, Seahawks and 49ers. Oddsmakers are giving a pass to a few 2018 underachievers, and an overachieving Seattle outfit, while not affording the Falcons (plus-1500 to win the NFC) the benefit of the doubt. A playoff team in two of the past three years, and one that lost three starting defenders in September of last season’s 7-9 slog, the Falcons feature fewer questions than most of their mid-level NFC brethren.

Calvin Ridley gave the 2018 team three 800-plus-yard receivers; one of the better prospects in a loaded ’18 draft, he should improve this season. This Falcons edition employs a scarier aerial corps than Atlanta’s Super Bowl LI team. The Falcons will have Devonta Freeman back after a 14-carry season, and first-round offensive linemen (right guard Chris Lindstrom, right tackle Kaleb McGary) join stalwarts Alex Mack and Jake Matthews. The offensive coordinator of the No. 1-seeded 2012 Falcons, perhaps a pass interference no-call from Super Bowl XLVII, is the returning Dirk Koetter, an upgrade from ill-fitting Steve Sarkisian.  The Falcons’ Freeman-less offense still finished sixth offensively. Few NFC attacks can compete with this version’s firepower.

Of course, the Falcons are minimized on preseason radars because of their defense, which finished 25th in points allowed last season. But it was battling uphill, with safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen missing 15 and 13 games, respectively. Atlanta’s top defender, middle linebacker Deion Jones, played in just six. Football Outsiders’ injury stat, adjusted games lost, ranked the Falcons’ defense 25th.

In 2017, this Falcons core finished eighth in points allowed. A healthier Atlanta defense muzzled the Rams in Sean McVay’s playoff debut and held the Eagles to 15 points in the divisional round. GM Thomas Dimitroff clearly believes in his defense, given his top outside defensive investment this off-season (an Adrian Clayborn reunion, for just $750,000 guaranteed) and his extensions for Jones and Grady Jarrett this week. With no defenders chosen before Round 4, the Falcons may be banking too much on holdovers. But the Jones-, Jarrett- and Desmond Trufant-fronted lineup does not need to become a top-10 crew for the Falcons to contend again. It just can’t sink as low as it did last season. 

Fourteen starters remain from Atlanta’s Super Bowl LI team. With the exception of 34-year-old quarterback Matt Ryan, only one (Mack, 33) is north of 31. This nucleus has not reached its expiration date.

Spearheading a weakened team, Ryan (ninth in 2018 QBR) threw a quiet 35 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. If Drew Brees’ late-season valley was an indicator of a decline, the Falcons will lead the beneficiaries. Even if Brees continues his historic path and keeps the Saints atop the NFC South, Atlanta will almost certainly vie for a playoff spot.

The Falcons do not profile as 2019’s only candidates to shake off depressing seasons.

Of the NFC’s middle tier, the Vikings (plus-1200 to win the NFC) have balance their peers do not. They have staked their immediate future on GM Rick Spielman’s early- and mid-2010s draft picks (and Kirk Cousins justifying the expensive roster). In hiring Gary Kubiak as de facto offensive czar, the Vikings are going all-out to make their unprecedented quarterback contract work. Cousins learned the NFL through the Shanahan-Kubiak scheme, which produced McVay’s. Cousins set Redskins records in McVay’s offense. This, and a better offensive line, stands to increase Cousins’ comfort level.

A veteran Viking defense (top 10 in points and yards last season) has not crossed the “aging” threshold. It should remain capable of helping the team to the playoffs. 

No team replaces wideouts like the Steelers, who will be fairly motivated given the events of the past 10 months. It is certainly possible Antonio Brown, now a Raider, catalyzed Ben Roethlisberger’s mid-career metamorphosis into a statistically dominant passer. If the 16th-year quarterback maintains most of his Brown years’ form, the Steelers — bolstered by a legitimate commitment to restocking their long-unreliable defense and still carrying a stacked offensive line — boast a stronger roster than 2018’s. If Pittsburgh can reasonably navigate the Brown void, its cornerstone talents have obviously proven more than Cleveland’s. 

Neither the Vikings nor Steelers have a Saints-level obstacle in their way, but both are short on time. If they flounder this season, it will mean sobering self-evaluations and likely the end of their nuclei’s contention stretches. It is fair to wonder how much time the Falcons have left, too.

The franchise’s best players –- Ryan and Julio Jones –- are in their primes but won’t be for too much longer. Not making a serious run this season will probably mean head coach Dan Quinn’s ouster, after the off-season canning of all three coordinators. The fallout from another bungled season would mean chances increase the Ryan-Julio-Quinn era will be remembered for the most crushing defeat in NFL history, in Super Bowl LI against New England.

Despite scant references to their existence on 2019 sports debate shows, the Falcons have plenty of tools to return to relevance. Too much talent and experience reside on this roster to believe Atlanta will allow this run to end meekly. Bet on the Falcons playing a key role in shaping the NFC playoff seedings this season.

By: Sam Robinson


Posted in NFL

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