Falcons are shaping up as well as any team
It's only three games in, but right now the Atlanta Falcons look as if they are as good as any team in the NFL.
With new offensive and defensive coordinators, their makeover appears a success as they improved to 3-0 on Sunday by putting a 27-3 thumping on San Diego, one of only six remaining unbeaten teams in the league.
Sunday had set up as a classic "letdown" game. The Falcons had defeated Denver and Peyton Manning 27-21 on Monday Night Football and then had a short week in which to recover before traveling across the country.
Nevermind. Those are excuses for average teams. Sunday's win is the kind of win that indicates the Falcons might be in the midst of having the same kind of year as they did in 2010, when they finished 13-3 in the regular season and with the top record in the NFC. Of course, the Falcons lost in the first round of the playoffs to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay that season and they will only truly prove their mettle by winning a playoff game – something head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan famously have not done in their first three tries since arriving in Atlanta in 2008.
After Sunday's game, it's hard to tell how good the Chargers will be, but they still could be considered a favorite to win the AFC West. They had allowed their opponents an average of only 12 points per game coming in and the Falcons dominated them.
Behind offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the revamped offense led by quarterback Matt Ryan is functioning about as well as any team in the NFL's. Ryan finished 30-for-40 for 275 yards and three touchdowns – all of those scores in the first half – and one interception for a 107.8 rating. In his first three games, Ryan has finished with a rating of at least 100 in every game, including 136.4 against Kansas City and 101.5 against the Broncos. He has eight touchdowns and only one interception and is completing 72 percent of his passes – not bad, considering his career-best completion percent for a season is 62.5.
Even the much maligned running game eclipsed the 100-yard mark, and Michael Turner ran the ball 14 times for 80 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and a touchdown. Through two games, the Falcons' offense ranked second in the league in points per game at 33.5. Now, they're averaging 31.3.
Defensively, Mike Nolan has turned his unit into a turnover generator. One week after intercepting Manning three times in the first quarter, the Falcons again played take-away with the opposition. Safety Thomas DeCoud, in his fifth season out of Cal, returned to his native state and announced his presence in a big way. DeCoud is having a Pro-Bowl type season -- as is his counterpart William Moore.
Coming off an interception of Manning, DeCoud had two more off Philip Rivers on Sunday and recovered a fumble. He also had two passes defended. Moore, who also intercepted Manning last week, forced a fumble and recovered one against the Chargers.
At plus-seven, the Falcons entered the game tied for first in the league in turnover differential. Now, they are plus-10.
In the big picture – as crazy as it is to write this before the season has even hit the first quarter pole – the Falcons are in great position to win a second NFC South title in three seasons and earn a fourth playoff berth in five seasons. If they defeat Carolina at the Georgia Dome next Sunday, they will be three games up in the standings on both the Panthers and, at minimum, division champion New Orleans. Right now, they have at least a two-game lead over every team in the division.
That's not always the best thing. In '10, they built a big lead in the division and coasted to the crown, only to suffer a humiliating 48-21 loss to the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
But that's a long way off. So complete was their thrashing of the Chargers on Sunday – they won the time-of-possession battle 36:14 to 23:46 against an opponent that had averaged 37:07 with the ball in its first two games – that Smith is going to have to look hard for flaws.
Undoubtedly, he will find them. But at this point the Falcons are shaping up as well as any team in the league.