Jeff Fedotin of the National Football Post published an article today that posed the question of whether or not the Falcons are the team to beat in the NFC this season. Are they? In this time of rampant speculation that always precedes the actual season, it's hard to say with any degree of certainty, but when considering factors like last season's performance and personnel moves this offseason, the tentative answer is yes.
The Falcons were the class of the NFC South last season, finishing 13-3, while the rest of the division languished at 7-9. The Falcons have taken steps to address their positions of weakness, improving their running game with the acquisition of running back Steven Jackson, their pass rush by signing defensive end Osi Umenyiora, and their secondary by drafting cornerback Des Trufant. One cannot say with certainty until the team hits the field whether these moves resulted in significant upgrades for the Falcons, but, on paper, these were probably the best available solutions to the weaknesses that plagued the team last season.
Don't be fooled by the idea that the rest of the NFC South won't be more competitive this season, though. The Bucs added Darrelle Revis (who, it's worth noting, is not yet healthy enough to participate in OTAs), the Panthers added some key defensive players to a defense that gave Atlanta fits last season, and the Saints have Sean Payton back on the sidelines, although it's going to take more than Payton's presence to fix a historically terrible defense. But, the Falcons have also gotten better, theoretically, at least.
Considering Atlanta's success last season, and the steps they've taken to address weaknesses prior to the 2013 season, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which they don't win the division or secure a wildcard spot for the playoffs this season. That's not to say that it can't happen. Ask the Giants how it worked out for them in 2012 after winning the Super Bowl the previous season. But, it's reasonable to assume that the Falcons will be playoff-bound in 2013.
Once they get to the playoffs, then what? Well, if you listen to the national media, it doesn't matter what the Falcons do because who could possibly beat the Seattle Seahawks and/or the San Francisco 49ers. Why even bother to try?
First of all, the Falcons did actually beat the Seahawks in the playoffs, a fact that is consistently glossed over or dismissed as a fluke by members of the media when discussing how potent Seattle should be on both sides of the ball this season. Percy Harvin--a talented receiver, who can also run the ball, and is a skilled return specialist--was a decent acquisition for the Seahawks, although his impact will depend largely on his health, which has been an issue throughout his career. The Seahawks also added Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to their defensive line during the offseason--both excellent additions. Russell Wilson will enter the season with a full year of experience as a starter. The Seahawks were a very good team last season, and their offseason moves made them better. But the Falcons did beat the Seahawks when it mattered, in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs following the 2012 season, and the Falcons have also theoretically improved on both sides of the ball.
The 49ers are media darlings, there's no doubt, and they deserve respect--even if it's offered grudgingly--for getting to the NFC Championship in consecutive seasons, and making it to the Super Bowl last season. They've retained a lot of their starters, and they had what seemed like a billion draft picks to work with in 2013. They lost Dashon Goldson and Delanie Walker in free agency, but signed Anquan Boldin. Colin Kaepernick has more experience under his belt, after taking over the starting role in the middle of last season, but teams around the league also have more experience in preparing to defend the read-option San Francisco runs with Kaepernick. The Falcons very nearly beat this 49ers team in the NFC Championship Game, and Atlanta has addressed many of the weaknesses that kept them from scoring while failing to contain the 49ers offense in the second half of that game, leading to the loss.
Are the Falcons the team to beat in the NFC in 2013? That remains to be seen, but it's reasonable to expect that they'll be in the mix, and that they'll be prepared to compete with the best.