NFC South: Atlanta Falcons Grind out Wins
Yesterday I began my NFL Previews with a look at the reigning NFC South Champions, the New Orleans Saints. Today we look at the team with the best chance to knock them off and my pick to take the division this year, the Atlanta Falcons.
The Atlanta Falcons have to be the least exciting good team in all of football. At least when the Baltimore Ravens win with defense they make sure they hit some people very hard along the way. Atlanta just seems to grind out every game and come out on top in the end. But that isn’t a criticism, there is skill in that too. It takes a very disciplined style and the Falcons have that mastered. They have finished in the top five in both penalty yards against and turnover deferential in each of the last two years while leading the league in both in 2010. They are also a model of consistency finishing 2nd and 1st in the footballoutsiders.com team variance rankings in each of the last two years. They also have a built in advantage playing in a dome and they have only dropped three games at home over the past two years. Falcons head coach Mike Smith has certainly built the kind of team he wants. So are they good enough to take the next step, or have they already reached their pinnacle?
There are plenty of people who are predicting a decline for the Falcons because their team is past it’s prime – most point to the age of key running back Michael Turner. While I agree that the Falcons time to win is right now and that many of their players are on the tipping point of getting old I don’t think they will have a massive decline all of a sudden and I don’t believe we will see it this season. Turner is now 30 but has only seen four years of a full-time workload. Compare that to Frank Gore and Steven Jackson. Both are just over a year younger than Turner but Gore has seen six seasons as a full-time back and Jackson has had seven. Who do you believe is more worn down entering this season? Turner has less than 1500 career carries, even less than Maruice Jones-Drew who is five years his junior. While it is probably true that Turner’s best years are behind him, I still think he is not declining as rapidly as some fear, and that he can still have a good season and remain close to the level he’s been in the past.
So what is it that can put the Falcons back on top this year. Well like the team their reasons for improvement are also mostly boring. The Falcons have suffered few key losses this season. The only notable loss being linebacker Curtis Lofton who jumped ship to the New Orleans Saints but the Falcons were able to replace him with former pro-bowler Lofa Tatupu on the cheap. This “old” Falcons squad also suffered key injuries on the defensive line last season with the under-rated Jonatan Babineaux and big free agent signing Ray Edwards battling injuries all season. The Falcons hope both players recover and give the team a dominant defensive line. They also added cornerback Asante Samuel for the low price of a 7th round pick. The Eagles might have soured on him but it was not because of his play. Samuel is consistently one of the top CB in the game and will give the Falcons a dangerous trio of himself, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson.
Another reason for optimism in Atlanta is decidedly less boring: Julio Jones. Jones showed flashes of being an unstoppable force last season and if he can make the leap into the upper echelon of receivers this year then the Falcons will have to best WR tandem in the league, as Roddy White is a legitimate NFL star. Combine that with Matt Ryan just entering the thick of his prime at 27 and this Falcons team has reason to believe they can add some flash to their passing game, and once again be on top of the Dirty South.
… and thats the Last Word.