Last year, the Falcons went to Super Bowl LI as the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. This year, they fell to third place in the NFC South and the last wild-card spot.
But now that Atlanta has survived the proverbial hangover — it’s the only repeat playoff team in the conference — the Falcons can’t be counted out to advance to another conference championship.
Atlanta, with no chance to play a home playoff game this time, begins with a tough test in the wild-card round, traveling cross-country to Los Angeles to take on the Rams (Saturday, 8:15 p.m ET, NBC). But from the Falcons at 10-6 to the Eagles and Vikings at 13-3, little separates the six teams in the strong NFC playoff field.
Looking at the Falcons’ profile as a No. 6 seed with long, 12-1 odds (per Bovada) to win the conference again, there a lot of things to like.
The Falcons, in beating four other 2016 playoff teams (Packers, Lions, Cowboys, Seahawks), ensured their return even with one less victory. They also split against the new NFC South-champion Saints and runner-up Panthers. That built up a 9-3 conference record, third best and only one game off the Eagles and Vikings.
The Falcons had a little more momentum last season, winning the final four games and 5 of 7 after a Week 11 bye. This year, they still finished 3-1 to take 6 of 8. They have been in a lot of one-possession games, winning 6 of 10.
Atlanta steamrolled Seattle and Green Bay on the way to facing New England last season. As expected, everything has been more of a grind in the conference title defense.
The Falcons were winning a lot prettier last season because of offense, but there’s no doubt they’ve gotten grittier this season and go into the tournament battle-tested.
Much has been made about some significant offensive regression in the transition from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian at offensive coordinator. The Falcons, however, wouldn’t be in the playoff field without the work of Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel on the other side of the ball.
Last season, the Falcons were No. 17 against the run. This season they upgraded to No. 9, not far behind the Eagles, Vikings and Panthers.
Last season, the Falcons were No. 28 against the pass. This season they shot up to No. 12, only behind the Vikings among NFC playoff teams.
With those numbers, the Falcons improved from No. 25 to No. 9 in total defense (yards allowed). They also were No. 27 in scoring defense (25.4 points allowed per game) in 2016 before moving up to No. 8 (19.7 points allowed per game) in ’17. Those marks have them rivaling the Eagles and Vikings, too.
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Young players such as middle linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal have risen up as playmakers. Adrian Clayborn and Takk McKinley have boosted the situational edge pass rush. And unlike in last year’s playoffs, the Falcons also have top cornerback Desmond Trufant.
The Falcons are better equipped to hold leads and make game-changing sacks and takeaways than they were a year ago.
The passing game
Matt Ryan dropped off from his MVP campaign. His numbers and efficiency in the first year after Shanahan resembled his struggles in the first year with Shanahan, in 2015. His 20 TD passes were a career-low for a non-rookie season.
But through all that, among NFC playoff teams, only Drew Brees and the Saints had more passing yards per game and more passing yards per attempt than Ryan and the Falcons. Ryan also was better pass protected, taking 24 sacks vs. 37 last season. Only Brees was sacked fewer times (20) in the conference.
Beyond Brees, there’s a lot of unknown and inconsistency with the other NFC playoff quarterbacks. The Vikings’ Case Keenum and the Rams’ Jared Goff have yet to start a game in the postseason. The Eagles’ Nick Foles and the Panthers’ Cam Newton can either be great or awful as passers from game to game.
Ryan and Sarkisian haven’t been on the same page much, and there’s been higher volume with less efficiency from the running game, as both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman haven’t been the same healthy, dynamic duo. Go-to wide receiver Julio Jones hasn’t had the same catch or scoring rate.
But the potential is there for the Falcons to tap into in some of the same explosiveness of last year’s playoff run. Ryan also has had some bad luck with turnovers that weren’t his fault. No one would be surprised if Ryan picks the perfect time to play like he did in the strong, six-game stretch he had at midseason.
These editions of the Eagles, Vikings and Rams haven’t faced playoff success or failure. Beyond Brees, this a new feeling for most of the Saints. Only the Panthers have had the same recent run of winning the NFC and then losing in the Super Bowl.
The Falcons’ ability to avoid the full hangover and finish almost as well as they did last season was the first major step in overcoming the devastation of blowing that huge lead against the Patriots. It was similar to the resolve they had in 2016, when they rebounded from not making the playoffs despite a 5-0 start in ’15.
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Quinn has made sure his team has become physically and mentally tougher to respond to adversity. The Falcons were overlooked between the Cowboys, Seahawks and Packers in last year’s NFC playoffs, but it didn’t matter to them one bit. In that sense, they already are prepared to thrive as big underdogs.
The Falcons will have their hands full with the Rams first, but they match up with them well offensively and defensively. They’re not going anywhere else if they don’t win there, but you can bet it will be played at the level of the NFC championship already being at stake.