9 Thoughts On The Atlanta Falcons Playoff Chances

The Atlanta Falcons put on an electrifying offensive display this past Sunday, as quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards and outgunned Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints 37-34. Ryan and the offense now have a big game at the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2, and the question over whether Atlanta is back to being a playoff team and possible Super Bowl contender is back on the table.

Here’s nine thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons playoff chances this year…

*Atlanta spread the field out with four receivers throughout the game on Sunday and one would have to assume we’re going to see more of the same the rest of the year. To say they cause coverage problems understates the case—when Devin Hester is your fourth option, you’ve got a pretty good group of receivers. It makes sense to utilize them all.

*What makes less sense is having a problem at the left tackle spot when you commit to a scheme that’s going to leave the quarterback exposed by sending everyone out. Sam Baker opened training camp as the incumbent. Lamar Holmes got the call on Sunday. According to the experts at Pro Football Focus, who grade every player on every play, Holmes was subpar.

*The other way to slow an opposing rush is to run the ball effectively and make the defense respect it. Atlanta has Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers more or less splitting duty. If it works, and the Falcons can at least run often enough to keep opposing D-lineman from teeing off, it will go a long way to putting them back in the playoffs. But if it works, it won’t because the offensive line knocked people off the ball. It will be because Ryan and his receivers spread the field and created soft spots up the middle.

*If the only way you can run the ball is by spreading the field, what happens in the red zone when the defense can tighten up? It didn’t hurt the Falcons on Sunday, but as the year goes on, they’re going to play road games and games in inclement weather. Are they going to have enough muscle to get it done?

*There’s no player more important to the defense than corner Desmond Trufant. The Falcon defense doesn’t’ have bad personnel, but it’s mostly pedestrian. If Trufant plays like a lockdown corner—and he played well on Sunday—it really creates a lot of options for everybody else, from coverages to blitz packages.

*Depth is a problem on defense—the two-deep is filled with rookies and if injuries start taking their toll, Atlanta is going to be exposed in a lot of spots, particularly in the back seven.

*I know I’m striking a negative tone here, so I do want to be clear in one thing. I love Matt Ryan, going back to his days at Boston College (as an Irish Catholic who’s a fan of the Red Sox, Celtics & Bruins I have an instinctive sympathy for a BC quarterback named Ryan). Julio Jones is an amazing football player. Even if the worst-case scenario plays out at a lot of other spots, the fact Ryan has a healthy Jones is at least going to ensure last year’s meltdown doesn’t occur again.

*The schedule offers Atlanta the opportunity for a fast start. Following Cincinnati, they’ll have home games with Tampa Bay, Chicago and Detroit. The road trips will be to Minnesota, the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens. I won’t call it a soft schedule—face it, this early in the year, we’re still sorting everybody out. But to think Atlanta would be 5-2 going into their bye week is certainly realistic, even if you’re not a believer.

*Las Vegas is not a believer yet. Atlanta is priced at 30-1 odds to reach the Super Bowl. The betting numbers still say the Falcons, along with the Carolina Panthers will joust along the playoff bubble, with New Orleans still a prohibitive favorite in the NFC South and Tampa Bay still lagging.

I felt like Atlanta would move back up to the 8-8 or 9-7 range this year, but I’m not ready to go higher than that. Even though the Saints were my Super Bowl pick, the idea the Falcons could win a shootout in the Georgia Dome is certainly realistic. The problem with going higher than that is that eventually they’ll need to run the ball in the red zone, protect the quarterback, and make big plays on defense.

This Falcon team reminds me of the Warren Moon-era Houston Oiler teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They’ll always be exciting, they’ll always beat some good teams and they’ll always be tough to spot when the conditions are perfect. But eventually you have to win when conditions aren’t perfect. That’s why I still Atlanta narrowly missing the playoffs, or if they do make it, saying a quick goodbye in the first round.