Some of you were wondering why I would project the Atlanta Falcons to be the #3 seed in the NFC. You all know by now that I believe this is a playoff-caliber team that hasn’t gotten appreciably worse (and with the draft coming, figures to be better), and you know that I haven’t been overly impressed with what the rest of the NFC has been up to in free agency. Why, then, would I predict some pullback in their fortunes?
There are a number of reasons to believe that the Falcons won’t fare quite as spectacularly in 2017, though I hope I’m wrong about all of them. Here are three compelling ones.
Health, i.e. injury luck
Think about all the dumb ways you’ve injured yourselves over the years. If you’re anything like me, the list is long and very embarrassing.
Now think about NFL players, who exist to run very fast, absorb a ton of punishment, and live in pain. Then consider how remarkable it is that the Falcons were so healthy a year ago, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, where they got 16 game seasons out of every single starting offensive lineman.
The reality is that it’s simply not reasonable to think the Falcons are going to get through an entire season losing only a couple of starters for any length of time. Injury luck varies wildly, but it’s a rare (or very fortunate) team indeed that gets through two consecutive seasons relatively unscathed. Losing a starting lineman or a big-time defensive starter for a few games is probably inevitable, and it will likely impact the product on the field.
An improved division
You laugh, I laugh, but there’s some truth to this.
The Buccaneers, who have been the subject of many fawning pieces since their last playoff appearance in..2007? I dunno...figure to take a genuine step forward in 2017. Their defense is still suspect in some areas, but they have some truly great young players, and the offense is set up to succeed with improvements along the offensive line and some fearsome receiving threats. The only thing that could derail them is a lack of progress from Jameis Winston (which is possible) and a punchless ground attack (also possible). They should have a winning record this year, assuming decent health.
The Panthers probably aren’t as hilariously bad as they were in 2016, as much as it pains me to say so. Cam Newton’s status bears watching, but the offense is fine if he’s under center, and the defense remains strong, especially with their young cornerbacks getting a second year of experience under their belts. They should be decent.
Even the Saints, who have settled into a groove of mediocrity that would make the mid-2000s Falcons blush, probably won’t be pushovers. The offense is getting a little creakier and less certain by the year, even with stud receiver Michael Thomas in town, but they’ve poured a lot of resources into making their defense less than complete crap, and it’ll probably pay off enough that they’ll be decent, too.
The bottom line is the Falcons probably won’t roll over these guys as easily as they did in 2016, and even a 4-2 record against the division represents a step back.
The defense is going to improve—we’ll talk more about that tomorrow, for the cheerier half of this series—but the offense almost certainly will not. In fact, it’s very likely it’ll decline.
While most of the same pieces are there, nobody is expecting Steve Sarkisian to work the kind of miracles Kyle Shanahan did in his second year, not when it’s his first year coordinating an NFL offense. Nobody expects the offensive line to stay as healthy as they did a year ago, and there’s a potential trouble spot looming at right guard. The team is also going to press young Austin Hooper into a huge role that I think he’s ready for, but you just never know what will happen.
This is a top ten unit, probably top five one, but it may not be the best offense in football by a wide margin again unless Matt Ryan has entered the Super Saiyan stage of his career. Even a modest dip in production will wind up impacting the team’s spot in the playoff rankings, assuming (as I do) that they get there.
For all that, this is still unquestionably a playoff team if they just stay moderately healthy, so I don’t want you to think I’m down on the Atlanta Falcons. We’ll dive into three reasons I think they’ll be back in the postseason over the weekend.