Home > NFL > LiveBall Sports’ 2011 NFL Playoff Preview: The Atlanta Falcons can win the Super Bowl if…

LiveBall Sports’ 2011 NFL Playoff Preview: The Atlanta Falcons can win the Super Bowl if…

With a resounding victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15, the Atlanta Falcons separated themselves from the pack and put themselves in position to win 10 games this season.  They will clinch a playoff spot at that point.  But of all the wild card teams in either conference, it’s the Falcons that will be drawing the easiest first round match-up, in likelihood.

It’s a welcome difference for a team that drew the toughest divisional round match-up in the playoffs last year.  The Falcons didn’t really even play all that poorly against the Packers in the divisional playoffs next year,  they simply found themselves in the way of Aaron Rodgers.  The Falcons have shown a very pronounced home/road split under head coach Mike Smith, but that has (predictably) weakened this year, and so it may be fitting — if the Falcons make a run this year — that the Falcons are doing it on the road.

While the AFC field is interesting because 75% of the ‘old guard’ (minus the Colts) are right at the top of the conference yet again, the Faclons may be sitting prettiest in the NFC field simply because it’s become a quarterback field in the NFC (Brees, Rodgers, Eli, Romo, Vick, Cutler, and soon Cam Newton and Josh Freeman).  All those players except perhaps Brees will be in their primes over the next three years as the old guard of the AFC (Manning, Brady, maybe Schaub) decline.  The fact that it has become a quarterback field makes the Falcons the most interesting team of all in that conference.

The Falcons are not, and have never been under Mike Smith, a quarterback dependent team.  Until this year, everything Atlanta did was based off Michael Turner and the running game and the offensive line.  Roddy White may be a great receiver who can do it all, but the Falcons have long been contented to use White in a role that keeps him between the numbers and underneath the LB level racking up catches to stay on schedule.  White has flashed the ability to be Reggie Wayne of the next five years, but the Falcons have gone out of their way with Tony Gonzalez and White to protect Ryan.  When the Falcons have spread the field this year with Ryan in the gun, they have had to endure uneven, even disappointing results.  Ryan doesn’t always make the right reads, and sometimes he does make the right read, and gets the ball to rookie Julio Jones in a one on one, and Jones isn’t ready to come through yet.

I think you can see how difficult the Falcons are going to be to defend in the future, but the multiplicity of the Falcons still depends heavily on Michael Turner.  It’s not clear what the Falcons will get in the future from Turner, but right now, they still have one of the better backs in the NFL carrying the football.  And because the Falcons ground game is so tough to defend, Matt Ryan gets a couple great looks down the seams a game off of play action.

I think it’s difficult to put Matt Ryan in the class of those other guys in the NFC, but if you just judge him and his Falcons against Tony Romo’s Cowboys, Eli Manning’s Giants, Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, and Drew Brees’ Saints; Matt Ryan plays for the NFC team that isn’t consistently blowing coverages left and right, has and leans on it’s running game for more than just conservative effect, and has the veterans around him trying to reach levels they never have before.  The burden on Ryan to succeed in the playoffs will be there, but Ryan’s infrastructure is much better than anyone else in this field.  And even though he’s probably not, Matt Ryan can masquerade as one of the NFC’s best quarterbacks in the super bowl should the Falcons get there, similarly to a guy like Matt Hasselbeck in 2005.

If the current seeding in the NFC was to hold, the Falcons would draw the Giants/Cowboys winner in the first round on the road, two teams that really do not enjoy much of a home field advantage.  And then the Falcons can go to Green Bay to ruin the Packers season.

There are three defenses in or around the NFC playoff field that can give the Packers the kind of fits that the Chiefs just did.  The Falcons are one of those teams.  As are the 49ers, and the Bears.  A couple of problems with the 49ers challenging the Packers: they have weaknesses in their secondary, and typically haven’t had to use their nickle defense extensively in wins.  Beyond that, the 49ers win in a very formulaic manner.  It is unlikely they could beat a full strength Packers team playing like they currently do.  The Bears absolutely could, but the thing that would ruin the Bears chances against the Packers (lack of competency on offense) is also going to ruin the Bears’ chances of getting in the postseason field.  The Falcons, once they get in, pose the largest threat to the Packers, because they can give them a game on defense, and unlike the other defense-only NFC teams, the Falcons can put Matt Ryan on the field, drop him back, and scheme to attack the weaknesses of the Packers.

The roadblock that would stand between the Falcons and a super bowl run is a trip to the Superdome to play the Saints, something the Falcons have to do this Monday night, because that’s what the regular season schedule stands.  When Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams gets a read on how to frustrate a quarterback, he has the ability to make players like Ryan look very average, and can do it while loading the box to limit Turner.  The easiest path for the Falcons to get to the super bowl is to avoid the Saints by hoping the Saints get shipped off to San Francisco or Green Bay before the Falcons have to play their division rivals.  Pending the outcome of this week’s game, there are still improvements and adjustments to be made by the Saints offense against the Falcons defense.  But trying to make those adjustments on the fly to catch Drew Brees on the scoreboard is not a particularly fun or practical way of playing in Indianapolis this February.

So yes, the case for the Atlanta Falcons to win the super bowl this season isn’t airtight.  No team is going to be favored to beat the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs, and the Saints have long been a thorn in the side of the Falcons.  If it came to an Atlanta at San Francisco championship game, Atlanta might be favored on the road, but passing that test is far from a certainty.  It’s just that when you examine the wild card contenders: the Jets, the Steelers, the Bengals, the Lions, the Seahawks, or the Cardinals, that it becomes favorable to believe in what the Falcons are doing right now.  They have a much better makeup as a playoff team than they had in either of the prior two years.

Three years ago, the Falcons were the 2011 49ers.  They were protecting a very successful quarterback and winning according to formula.  They could not overcome Kurt Warner and the high flying Cardinals in a playoff game.  Last year, their offensive was highly efficient, but limited, and their defense was a weak point.  The Packers ate that up.  This year, the Falcons are much more multiple, have a much more high-powered offense that, at times, looks almost limited by a pretty darn good NFL quarterback, and a weak offensive line.  That potential, combined with a resurgent defense, and a tried and true running game makes the Falcons a very interesting pick in the NFC as potentially the most complete team in the NFC.

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