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If defense wins championships, how far away from a Super Bowl are the Falcons?

The answer: If that was the only criteria, a long way away.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the Denver Broncos dismantle the Carolina Panthers' high-powered offense was a thing of beauty, and a reminder that a truly great defense tends to trump everything else in the postseason. Knowing that, it's worth asking just how close the Falcons are to having a great defense, even if it's one that's unlikely to ever be as good as the Denver unit we just saw.

And the answer is obvious: Pretty far away.

The Falcons were ranked 17th in yards per game, 19th in scoring, and dead last in sacks for the 2015 season. They were stouter against the run and their secondary was, on balance, a strength once more, but this was at best an average defense that came up with some timely interceptions, and it's fair to argue they weren't even average thanks to that weak pass rush. They had lousy linebacker play, and clearly need at least one more quality offseasons before the defense will truly be quality, even if I thought they were better than they were in 2014.

This team is another great pass rusher (or two), a couple of quality linebackers, and an addition or two at safety away from having the horses to run the kind of defense Dan Quinn really wants to run, and they'll probably never reach the heights we just witnessed from the Broncos.

The good news for Atlanta is that a strong offense and an above average defense has won many a Super Bowl, as well--think the Patriots, Giants, Packers, and Saints—and they have the pieces on the other side of the ball to be much better than they were in 2015. If Quinn and company can build the defense over the next two offseasons and there isn't a sudden collapse on offense, I don't think it's unreasonable to think that the Falcons will be legitimate contenders by 2017.

An elite defense, though? I almost don't dare dream of that day.