The Patriots, Packers and Steelers will all take the field this Sunday looking to clinch a berth in Super Bowl LI in Houston, but while those three may be dominating the discussion in the lead-up to the AFC and NFC Championship games, there’s a party crasher in the Atlanta Falcons who are deserving of your attention as well.
On the surface, it makes sense that fans and the media have seemingly overlooked Atlanta, which finished in a tie for the second-best record in the NFC this year at 11-5. After all, the Falcons entered 2016 in a three-season playoff drought and are nearly two decades removed from the franchise’s first and only Super Bowl appearance.
In the team’s second season under coach Dan Quinn, few if any could have seen a championship run on the immediate horizon for the 40-to-1 Vegas long shots who are not getting the credit or recognition they deserve. Fortunately, we’re here to help, with five reasons you really should start paying attention to — and believing in — the Falcons.
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They’ve got the best offense in football — and it’s not really close
The Falcons rattled off an astounding 128 points during the first three games of a four-game win streak in September and October, and they came closer than you’d think to holding that pace in one of the most impressive offensive seasons ever.
Led by quarterback Matt Ryan, having the best year of his career, and his top target Julio Jones, Atlanta averaged a league-high 33.8 points per game, and the Falcons’ 540 regular-season points are tied with the 2000 “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams for the eighth-most in NFL history. In addition, Atlanta led the league in yards per play (6.7), points per drive (2.93) and average drive distance (38.2 yards), while scoring on 53 percent of its offensive possessions — a full seven percentage points better than New Orleans, the NFL’s No. 2 team in the category.
The play of running back Devonta Freeman, who recorded his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, has been a pleasant surprise. Overall, Atlanta finished with the fifth-most rushing yards in the league and is an honest threat to score every time it snaps the ball.
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They protect the ball
Teams tend to play better when they don’t commit turnovers, obviously, and Atlanta has been as good as anyone – ever – at protecting the rock. Just 11 of the Falcons’ 185 regular-season drives ended with a fumble or interception, tying them with the Patriots for the fewest in the league. That number also put both teams just shy of the NFL record of 10.
The Falcons had just one game with multiple turnovers (a Week 6 loss in Seattle), and over the past five games, including last week’s Divisional Round victory against the Seahawks, the Atlanta offense has turned the ball over just once. Ryan, meanwhile, has thrown 15 touchdown passes since his last interception, on Dec. 4.
None of that, of course, precludes the Falcons from a stinker — Ryan has had a three-pick game as recently as November 2015 and has a five-interception game on his career tally, as well — but recent history says they’ll protect the ball and won’t beat themselves.
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Their defense isn’t as bad as you think
No one will mistake the Falcons defense for a stalwart unit, but over the course of the season — particularly, since the team’s Week 11 bye — the Falcons have shored up many of the issues that plagued them early on.
After giving up an abysmal 28.3 points per game during Weeks 1-10, Atlanta surrendered just 20.5 points per game during a 5-1 stretch to end the regular season. Further, the Falcons unit that allowed a fifth-worst 385.9 yards per game prior to its bye has held opponents to 346.7 yards per game since.
There’s plenty to be read detailing the nuts and bolts of exactly how Atlanta has turned itself around, but it boils down to rapid growth from the Falcons’ first- and second-year players in the linebacking corps and secondary — namely Jalen Collins, Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and nickel corner Brian Poole. Add to that the out-of-his-mind play of NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley and a propensity for generating turnovers (they’ve forced 13 in the last seven games) and Atlanta has built itself a defense that is at least respected, if not yet feared.
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Their coach has been here before
Though untested in the playoffs as a head coach, Quinn has a long history in the league and reached the Super Bowl in each of his two seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks. That alone brings playoff experience to a locker room that is generally lacking in it, but Quinn has also showed an openness to learning from others who have found success across all sports, and has met with everyone from Bill Parcells to Steve Kerr to Joe Maddon to find out what makes championship teams tick.
None of that wins games, but there’s some comfort in knowing that Quinn is not in over his head, even on the biggest stage, and that’s a belief his players have clinged to throughout the season.
“I think the approach and knowing that Dan knows how to get it done, he’s been there and has gone through that process before makes a difference,” Matt Ryan said during a recent Atlanta radio appearance. “He understands what it takes, guys believe in that and trust in his process.”
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They believe in each other
Scoff if you will, but the Falcons are living proof that a tight-knit team away from the field will show those same tendencies on game day.
Much of that stems from Quinn, whose emphasis on connecting with his players — and assuring that his players are accountable to each other — was shaped throughout his career but particularly during his time coaching alongside Pete Carroll in Seattle. And in the two seasons since Quinn took over in Atlanta, the concept of the team being a family has permeated through the entire roster and truly taken hold, to the point where the Falcons have explicitly started referring to themselves as a brotherhood.
“We’re all an extension of one another, any one of you could be counted on to win the game,” Quinn told the Falcons team site in December. “They have the accountability to one another. And that’s where the cool stuff happens, when you have that peer-to-peer, brother-to-brother accountability – ’Hey man, I will not let you down. I will get this job done. You can count on me.’ And that’s a powerful feeling.”