Remember last season?
The Atlanta Falcons jumped to a 5-0 and looked to be a surefire to make it to the playoffs in Dan Quinn’s first season as head coach. Then the wheels fell off.
The Falcons went 3-8 over the next 11 games, becoming just the seventh team since the 1970 merger to miss the postseason after winning the first five games.
Atlanta has its doubters after this year’s surprising 4-1 start — not particularly surprising for a franchise that doesn’t exactly have an illustrious history.
But the 2016 Falcons are nothing like the 2015 squad, and it’s lazy to use that as a reason for why this team will collapse again.
The schedule’s a lot tougher
Last season Atlanta had the league’s easiest strength of schedule (based on the opponents’ 2014 records). The Falcons defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans and Washington Redskins to start the season. Only two of those teams made it to the playoffs — Houston and Washington — and they were both bounced in the first round.
Despite being tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the toughest strength of schedule this season, Atlanta already has signature wins under its belt. They’ve strung together four straight victories, decisively defeating the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos — the Super Bowl 50 loser and winner, respectively — in back-to-back weeks, as well as going on the road to beat the Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints.
Aside from an anomalous Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons look markedly better this season.
Matt Ryan and the offense are clearly comfortable
The Falcons’ offense ranks first in pretty much every major category thus far, and it’s undoubtedly due to an increased comfort level with Kyle Shanahan’s scheme.
Ryan has never started a season this hot. He’s passed for 1,740 yards, 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He’s completed 69 percent of his passes and has a passer rating of 121.6. Through five games in 2015, Ryan had passed for 1,456 yards, 6 touchdowns and four interceptions, and he looked noticeably uncomfortable throughout the entire season.
The fact Ryan is spreading the ball around speaks to his comfort in Year Two. Last season Julio Jones had 43 catches at this point in the season as the offense was essentially a one-man show through the air. Five players have at least 14 catches this season, and Jones has 19 fewer receptions than he did in 2015.
There’s also Tevin Coleman’s emergence as a receiver. The second-year running back is second on the team in receiving with 17 receptions for 313 yards. He also leads the team in total touchdowns with five.
Then there’s Alex Mack, who has proven to be one of the best free agent signings of the year. Last year’s center experiment with Mike Person didn’t work out too well, and Mack has shown the importance of being steady at the position.
The defense is improved
Atlanta still has a ways to go with getting a great defense, but we’ve seen glimpses that they’re headed in the right direction.
Deion Jones, the Falcons’ second-round pick, has been impressive in the middle. He’s exhibited speed and playmaking ability for a unit that has desperately lacked both for quite a while. It was no surprise that he was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month for September.
After missing the first two games of the season, Keanu Neal has shown why the team took him with their first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The strong safety is a fierce hitter who’s shown good coverage ability.
Dwight Freeney, at 36 years of age, still has something left in the tank. He’s notched a sack in three consecutive games. On the other side, Vic Beasley’s 3.5 sacks against the Broncos last week could be a huge building block for the second-year player. He already has more sacks (4.5) than he had all of last season.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Grady Jarrett, who has been an absolute force in the middle of the defensive line.
The Falcons have another tough matchup on Sunday — this time, against the 3-1 Seattle Seahawks. If they pull out their fourth road victory of the season, it’ll be difficult to doubt them any longer. But even if they lose, it’s hard to expect another collapse.
Say it with me: The Atlanta Falcons are legitimate contenders.