The Atlanta Falcons went to the playoffs in 2017 and won the wildcard round match-up against the Rams before losing their Divisional round match against the eventual champions the Eagles. What are the chances of a repeat in 2018?
Reasons to be cheerful?
Firstly, the Falcons survived the roughest of rough rides by making it into last years playoffs when all and sundry said they’d be hungover from the defeat in the 2016 Super Bowl. I think the fact they made it to the divisional game truly put that idea to bed.
Ok, lets cut to the chase, Steve Sarkisian has had a whole year to install his offensive schemes and work with the players after a season of being made the scape-goat for the teams troubles. Sure the team numbers were well down last year, the 2016 Super Bowl contenders had 38 passing TDs and 20 rushing TDs with Dan Quinn as O.C, compared to a 21 and 11 record when martialled by Sark. This downturn was to be expected, at least to some degree, 2016 had been a record setting year for the Falcons offense and QB Matt Ryan so some natural regression was always likely even before factoring in the change of scheme. Chances are good that with all the same weapons in place (Julio, Freeman, Coleman and Sanu) plus the addition of Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley the team will finish inside the top 5 offenses this time around.
Don’t discount the fact that Julio has been health all off-season this year too, as he missed a large chunk of the run up to last seasons opener. We all agree that he needs more Redzone targets (Julio hasn’t had double digit TDs since 2012 and had only 3 last season) but with 9000+ yards in 7 seasons so far you know he’s going to be a key player every week (hes missed just 17 games in those 7 seasons, mostly in 2013 when he was out for 11 matches)
Finally, be cheerful that TE Austin Hooper is on the team. 797 yrds and 6 TDs in his 2 seasons so far is not eye-popping, however, the addition of Ridley in the slot will force opposing defences to pick and choose they players they cover even more carefully and this should lead to Hooper finding more space and targets in the middle of the open field.
Reasons to be fearful?
The NFC South is a brutal place to be right now, The New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers are capable of taking on any team in either conference and winning whilst the Buccs are often unpredictable and looking to cause an upset whenever possible. This division produced 3 Playoff contenders last year as both wildcard spots were awarded here. Losing divisional match-ups could prove costly and with the Falcons playing each of their rivals at home inside their first 6 fixtures there is no time to sleep on that Sarkisian scheme this year. If the system has not been as well adopted as we expect, or if Sark truly isn’t as capable as we assume then the Falcons could lose many close games.
The D lost both Adrian Clayborn (last seasons lead pass-rusher) as well as Nose Tackle and all-round frightening behemoth Dontari Poe. Vic Beasley will be the key rusher now and he is more than capable of putting up huge numbers but the interior of the line has less talent than last season and will need to hold its own for Beasley to be as effective as he can be.
How does the season shape up?
Those divisional match ups will determine everything once again for the Falcons as they try to make it to their “home” Super Bowl. Last year they surged through into the playoffs despite the offensive struggles and a drop in defensive takeaways (16-only 4 teams had fewer). Its hard to see the offense struggling as much this season, and the chances are that the defence will at least match last season’s output, if not exceed it. If either side of the ball fails to perform to their fullest then the chances of making the post season will be hugely curtailed as there is no room for error in this conference. Weeks 12, 13 and 14 will be key as they play away at New Orleans And Green Bay and home to Baltimore. Losing 2 of these three could damage their post season push. I see another close-run thing as they battle for the division with the Saints and Panthers whilst keeping an eye on all the wildcard contenders in the NFC.
Playoffs? Definitely a good chance, more likely as a wildcard than divisional winner