Falcons are the NFC’s biggest sleeper in 2019

Atlanta Falcons

It proved to be a disappointing 2018 for the Atlanta Falcons. But the rest of the conference can’t afford to underestimate Dan Quinn’s club this season.

If you go by the win-loss record the last few years, it’s a team that appears to be on a downward spiral. From an 11-5 finish, an NFC South title and a Super Bowl appearance in 2016 to a 10-6 mark and a wild card berth one season later. In ’18, the club got off to a 1-4 start and finished out of the postseason picture with a 7-9 mark.

Don’t buy the trend.

Dan Quinn enters his fifth season as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. His debut campaign saw his team open with five wins, only to finish 8-8. A year later it was Super Bowl LI and a 28-3 third-quarter advantage over the New England Patriots. There would be no more scoring that day for the Falcons on the way to a devastating 34-28 overtime setback.

The following season, the team opened 3-0 but was a mundane 7-6 the rest of the way enroute to a second straight playoff appearance. Atlanta knocked off the Los Angeles Rams and had the eventual Super Bowl-champion Eagles on the ropes in Philadelphia in the Divisional round but couldn’t punch the ball inside the 10-yard-line in the final moments in a 15-10 loss.

Notice a pattern? Quinn’s club has been unable to close the deal for the most part in various scenarios. So when it comes to teams mentioned this offseason when it comes to representing the National Football Conference in Super Bowl LIV at South Florida, there’s talk of the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears or Dallas Cowboys, as well as the defending NFC champion Rams. There’s rarely been a mention of a team that was in the “Big Game” three years ago. And that could be a mistake.

You could make a strong case that the Falcons are primed for a big year because all the right pieces are in place. A closer look at the past three seasons shows the imbalance of the club in terms of complimentary football. In 2016, Atlanta ranked second in total yards per game, rolled up a league-best 540 points while quarterback Matt Ryan earned NFL MVP honors. But that was offset by the 25th-ranked defense and one that allowed the fifth-most passing yards in the league.

A year later, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left for San Francisco and was replaced by Steve Sarkisian. defensive coordinator Richard Smith was let go in favor of Marquand Manuel. The Falcons finished ninth in the NFL in total defense and rushing defense. But Ryan and the offense spent the year gobbling up yards while struggling in the red zone. This past season, the offense was once again humming. But early injuries to safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen and middle linebacker Deion Jones were costly. Atlanta scored a very-respectable 414 points but surrendered 423 on the way to a seven-win campaign.

So what will be different this fall? Quinn is now the defensive coordinator after Manuel was let go. Dirk Koetter is back running the offense, a coach Ryan is more than familiar with. Running back Devonta Freeman is healthy after missing the vast majority of 2018. The weapons include wide receivers Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, second-year pro Calvin Ridley and tight end Austin Hooper. And the offseason emphasis on this side of the ball included using a pair of first-round picks on guard Chris Lindstrom (Boston College) and tackle Kaleb McGary (Washington). There’s also veteran additions such as guard James Carpenter and versatile Jamon Brown.

But it is the defense that was the downfall more times than not these last few years, be it injuries, inefficiency or both. Staying healthy is essential. Bolstering the pass rush has been a priority for some time. But the Falcons’ run defense also suffered a year ago minus Neal and Jones (the latter returning late in the season). Defensive end Adrian Clayborn is back with the club after a year in New England and underrated Allen Bailey comes over from the Kansas City Chiefs to add depth on the line. All told, the organization has beefed up both sides of the ball in the trenches and that will serve any team well.

And take this for what it’s worth; while the Patriots have made Super Sunday a semi-annual event, the last time an NFC team went to back-to-back Super Bowls was 2013 and ’14, when the Seattle Seahawks turned the trick. Before that, it was the Green Bay Packers in 1996 and ’97. For the most part, it’s a conference that has been wide open. Over the past 11 seasons, 10 of the 16 teams in the NFC have reached the Super Bowl.

So it’s safe to say that Quinn and the Falcons would be more than content to stay out of the Super Bowl discussion over the next few months. The onus is already on the aforementioned teams such as the Rams, Saints, Eagles and Bears. But come January, this is a club that is not far removed from the playoffs and it would be somewhat foolish to dismiss them when it comes to making that trip to South Florida for Super Sunday.

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