Despite criticism, Falcons legit contenders

The Falcons have shown flashes before, but this year the Super Bowl is within Atlanta's grasp.

Sure, they have the record, but do they have the aura?

At the midpoint of their season, the Atlanta Falcons are the NFL’s only unbeaten team and only the 15th team in league history to reach 8-0.

But when a franchise has been playing since 1966 and never won a Super Bowl, it will have its doubters – especially with the current head coach and same core of players having qualified for the playoffs three times in the last four seasons yet failed to win a playoff game.

If there is one thing the Falcons have to prove, it’s that they can play with and beat some of the league’s most physical teams on defense and in the running game – NFC rivals like Chicago, San Francisco and the New York Giants, who sent the Falcons packing in last year’s playoffs with a 24-2 humiliation at MetLife Stadium.

Falcons head coach Mike Smith said his team is not a “dome team” – read: finesse – but his team will have to prove that on the field. To that end, the Falcons’ Dec. 16 home game with the Giants looms as the most important on their schedule – if not in the league – for the rest of the season.

Yet barring a major meltdown, Smith has the Falcons headed for the playoffs again. Will the 2012 Falcons go the same way as their recent predecessors?

It doesn’t seem so.

Here are four reasons why the Falcons are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
1. No more ground-and-pound. When Smith first took over the Falcons, his offensive philosophy was to control the line of scrimmage and the clock. That was an excellent way to turn a team from the laughing stock of 4-12 to 11-5 in a single season, but in the modern NFL, it fell short in transforming them into a Super Bowl contender.

Playing in the NFC South with New Orleans, the 2009 Super Bowl champions who possess one of the league’s most innovative passing offenses, the Falcons have realized they cannot dominate the clock and then trade field goals for touchdowns. It’s why entering Sunday’s matchup with the Saints, the Falcons are 2-6 against their archrivals in Smith’s tenure.

It’s also why they got whipped in January 2011 against eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay 48-21 at the Georgia Dome in a season when the Falcons earned the NFC’s top seed for the playoffs and which left a mark in collective memory.

The bold move to trade up 21 spots in the 2011 draft and select wide receiver Julio Jones has made the Falcons a more explosive offense. It didn’t pay immediate dividends last season when Jones was a rookie and injured at times, but it appears to be serving its purpose in 2012.
2. The team of Matt Ryan and Dirk Koetter. It’s a matter of debate in Atlanta as to whether the Falcons would have retained Mike Mularkey, the team’s offensive coordinator from 2008 to 2011, if Jacksonville had not hired him as its head coach, creating a vacancy for Atlanta to hire Dirk Koetter from the same Jaguars – a move that underwhelmed at the time.

However, there is no debate now about its success. While Mularkey might have been wed to ground-and-pound, Koetter has unshackled the offense and quarterback Matt Ryan, in his fifth season, has flourished. In an MVP-caliber season, Ryan’s 103.0 quarterback ranking is third-best in the league. Ryan’s career-best season rating came last season at 92.2. He already has posted a rating of at least 100 six times, one shy of his career high. He also is completing 68.9 percent of his passes; his previous career high for a season is 62.5.

Perhaps most importantly, Ryan has proven the ability to rally his team late in a game, something he has yet to be close enough in a playoff game to do. He owns 19 career fourth-quarter or overtime victories, the most by a quarterback in his first five NFL seasons since 1966.

Koetter’s play-calling – most of the plays are the same from the last four seasons – is making optimum use of Jones, four-time Pro-Bowl wide receiver Roddy White and future hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Since the bye week, the Falcons appear to have rediscovered their running game and Michael Turner again is on a pace for a 1,000-yard season. Koetter also is finding ways to get the ball to speedy back Jacquizz Rodgers, who had two huge third-down receptions on the Falcons’ final drive that sealed their 19-13 win over Dallas last Sunday.

The example of Koetter and Ryan at their best was Oct. 28’s win at Philadelphia when the Falcons scored on their first six drives, totaling 30 points in the process.
3. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. With only two different starters from the ‘11 defense, Nolan has dramatically altered the group. His defenses from down to down are unpredictable – defensive end Kroy Biermann will drop back and play safety and cornerbacks and safeties can blitz on any given play – and successful in ways that previous Falcons defenses were not.

Nolan has taken a 4-3 defense and introduced 3-4 concepts. He has played nickel defense (five defensive backs) more to counter the league’s passing trend. All of it has confused quarterbacks – Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers rank among the victims – and yielded 17 takeaways and a plus-10 turnover margin, which ranks fourth in the NFL. The Falcons also have shown they can win when they generate turnovers and when they do not -- something they have accomplished the last two weeks.

Nolan also has improved the Falcons’ third-down efficiency, which was tied for the third-worst in the NFL last season on a 10-6 team. After a poor showing in Week 1, the Falcons’ defense is functioning at a 35 percent rate on third downs, which would rank them in the league’s top 10.

Smith said his two new coordinators have done an “outstanding job” this season.

“They’ve done a great job of not only calling the game, but preparing our football team and going through the process of putting the game plan together with the rest of our coaching staff,” he said. “Through the first half of the season we’ve done a nice job, but we still have a long second half to go.”
4. Veteran leadership. Among the most important changes the Falcons made this season was in adding two-time Super Bowl-winning cornerback Asante Samuel to the likes of ultra-professional Gonzalez and the level-headed Ryan.

Samuel has spiked a somewhat sedate mix of players with a healthy dose of confidence and attitude, which the defense had lacked it.

“We step on the field, we step on the practice field as a champion, that’s what we believe in our heart,” Samuel said. “We’re champions and we play with confidence and swag and I think that’s what it’s about. We have a good team with a bunch of explosive players on defense and offense and that completes a team.”

Gonzalez said he knows future opponents will be gunning for the Falcons, who now sport a target on their backs.

“We have to be prepared for that, we have to understand that and that’s why I don’t think this team will have a problem being in contention,” he said. “We’re not going to be content with any type of record we have or success because we can’t.

“If we do, we’ll get beat.”

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