The Atlanta Falcons were one of the most surprising teams in the NFL last season, charging out to an 8-0 start and finishing with a 13-3 record, the NFC South title and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. They then finally got their first playoff win of the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era and lost a heartbreaker to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship.
Many observers thought the Falcons had a good chance to be a playoff team last season, but few expected they would be that good. They won’t take anyone by surprise this year, so the question is can they do it again?
Looking at the talent on their roster, the quick answer is yes they can. Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez form one of the elite passing attacks in football, and free agent addition Steven Jackson should be a huge boost to the run game. The offensive line has continued to have its share of struggles, but the Falcons believe it is good enough to get the job done.
Defensively, the team returns most of last season’s unit, which ranked 24th in the NFL in yards allowed per game but 5th in points per game. The difference in those rankings is cause for concern, because it is very difficult to constantly make red zone stands. The Falcons signed Osi Umenyiora and drafted CB Desmond Trufant in the 1st round to bolster the unit, and the defense must improve for the Falcons to repeat their success.
The Falcons’ schedule is set up well for them to win quite a few games. The New Orleans Saints figure to be much better with the return of Sean Payton, and the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are continuing to improve, giving Atlanta a difficult road to defending their divisional title. However, the Falcons still remain the favorites, and they should certainly post a winning record in the division.
The Falcons have a challenging non-divisional schedule, but several of their toughest matchups are at home. They will struggle to beat the 49ers and Green Bay Packers on the road, but they should be favored or even in every other game. I don’t think the Falcons are so good that they will run the table in those games, but they certainly should win the vast majority. Considering that, I predict the Falcons to finish with a 12-4 record.
12-4 will certainly get them back to the playoffs, and it should win the division as well. They will have a chance to test themselves against every projected top team in the NFC in the regular season, so we will find out exactly how the Falcons compare to their likely playoff opponents. The Falcons are dominant in the Georgia Dome, having only lost four home games over the last three seasons. Expect that trend to continue, meaning their road performance will determine their success.
This is a big year for Ryan and the Falcons, and they will be expected to build on last year’s success. Expect another excellent regular season, and they should be in good shape when the playoffs begin.