After a shaky Week 1 road victory over the Chicago Bears in which the offense looked vanilla and the defense did just enough to get the win, fans and pundits were unconvinced. “Sarkisian cannot run an NFL offense”, “the Falcons will regress in 2017”, “how could Atlanta possibly avoid a Super Bowl hangover?”. All were par for the course after an offseason that saw only a few respect the Falcons as frontrunners in the NFC.
It’s also a lazy one— an analysis built on observed trends from over the years, not on anything specific to the team itself. Of course, it’s not entirely incorrect: Super Bowl losers do tend to struggle during the next season. Those who took the time to really investigate this Falcons team, however, came away with the belief that Atlanta would be a contender again this year.
After dispatching the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football to the tune of 34-23, the Falcons head into Week 3 of the season sitting at 2-0. They now have a tough road win under their belts and an impressive victory against a team that was thought to be one of the biggest contenders in the NFC. Sure, the Packers were limited by their injuries, but this is the NFL—every team is dealing with injuries. What matters is if you win or lose.
So far, the Falcons have won, and they’ve shown no signs of slowing down.
The Falcons are just the fourth team since 2000 to start 2-0 after a Super Bowl loss. Of those other three teams, two ended up making the playoffs. It’s an excellent start for a team that is looking for redemption after an extremely disappointing end to their magical 2016 season. Atlanta is hungry for a Super Bowl, and so far, it looks like this 2017 squad is ready to compete.
Many of the biggest concerns of the offseason have been dealt with. The defense—particularly the pass rush and defensive line—looks markedly improved. Sarkisian’s offense, despite a relatively slow start in Week 1, looks effective and very similar to last year’s unit. Second-year player and new RG starter Wes Schweitzer struggled in his debut against the Bears, but looked solid in Week 2. Matt Ryan is still playing at an incredibly high level, with a 112.2 passer rating and an insane 9.88 yards per attempt after two games.
Young players are emerging. First-round draft choice, EDGE Takkarist McKinley, has looked disruptive in limited snaps and will now get his chance to be the team’s primary pass rusher with Vic Beasley injured. LB Duke Riley has struggled some with tackling, but his speed and physicality are apparent. S Damontae Kazee hasn’t seen many snaps, but appears ready to step in if called upon.
Quinn and Dimitroff’s additions in free agency and via trade also appear to be paying dividends. DT Dontari Poe, by far the Falcons’ biggest acquisition (in more ways than one), has slimmed down and looks to be a force against the run and as a pass rusher. DL Jack Crawford has been a versatile contributor in both the base and nickel defense. T Ty Sambrailo, who the team traded for just before the season, was forced into the lineup after RT Ryan Schraeder’s injury. He played competently—a far cry from the tackle play we witnessed in the preseason.
Then, you have second-year players and veterans that seem to be improving. CB Robert Alford stepped up last year after Trufant’s injury and looked like a CB1. Speaking of Trufant, he returned from his injury this season and looks to be at the peak of his abilities, even winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Green Bay. SS Keanu Neal, and LBs Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are all looking more confident with a year of experience under their belts.
This defense is stacked from top to bottom, and I haven’t even talked much about the offense. Matt Ryan has so many weapons that guys like TE Austin Hooper and WR Justin Hardy—who both have shown flashes of dynamic ability that would probably make them primary targets in less-talented offenses—are just tertiary and depth options here. You could argue that Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman would both be top-10 RBs outside of Atlanta.
The point is this: the Falcons may have the most talented roster in the NFC, possibly even in the entire NFL. They’ve shown through two games that they are—mentally, at least—moved on from the Super Bowl and ready to compete for another title. The coaching staff and front office appear to be on the same page, and Atlanta is in prime condition to remain at this level for at least a few seasons.
It’s time to officially put the hangover narrative to bed.
2017 is a new season, and nothing is ever set in stone. Even after a strong 2-0 start and a victory over an NFC contender, the Falcons are no lock to make the playoffs. There is plenty of football left to be played, and Atlanta will need to be ready for a difficult and trying season. Every week in the NFL is hard, and any team can hand another a loss. It’s what makes the sport so much fun.
The Falcons would be wise not to look past any of the teams left on their schedule. This week, for example, the Falcons face an undefeated Lions team that has looked pretty sharp thus far. They’ll have to go on the road and contend with another top-tier offense, which might be the stiffest test yet for an improving Atlanta defense that will be without their top pass rusher in Vic Beasley.
In the end, however, the Falcons will be the ones responsible for their fate—not some nebulous “hangover”. They aren’t moping around after the loss like the 2015 Panthers. Instead, they’re taking it more like the 2013 Broncos, who were also dealt a horrible defeat in embarrassing fashion. The Broncos didn’t mope around or feel sorry for themselves: they kept grinding, and although it took two years, they made it back to the biggest stage stronger and better. We all know what happened next.
I think this Falcons team has that potential. They’re stronger and better now, just like the Broncos—and they’re also resilient. Atlanta isn’t going to go 16-0. They will face their share of trials and tribulations before the end. The division may be exceptionally tough, with the Panthers and Bucs both undefeated thus far. But there’s just something special about the Falcons in 2017.
The hangover is dead, and this Falcons team looks poised to accomplish something great. I hope that something is a Super Bowl trophy, but it very well might not be. Regardless, we’ve got a long way to go until we reach the end. As Quinn likes to say, you have to climb the mountain every single season. But unlike in years past, the Falcons don’t have to start at the bottom. They’re already at base camp, and the first two legs of the expedition have gone as well as one could hope.
Here’s to the rest of the journey. I’m excited to see where we all end up at the end.