Falcons vs. Chargers: Atlanta Spanks San Diego, Improving All Around

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterSeptember 23, 2012

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 23:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons calls out a play against the San Diego Chargers in the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium on September 23, 2012 in San Diego, California. The Falcons defeated the Chargers 27-3.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The theme for the 2012 season for the Atlanta Falcons has been improvement. And it goes a lot further than a 3-0 start that the team hasn’t enjoyed since 2004.

Team owner Arthur Blank passed to his team an edict after the Falcons were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs last season by the New York Giants—the third such one-and-done playoff performance in four years.

To Blank, winning in the regular season isn’t good enough. Just making the playoffs and being happy about it is for lesser NFL franchises. Blank told this team, in no uncertain terms, to begin winning playoff games. Now. The Super Bowl is what’s expected.

Through three games, his team has listened.

The Falcons punished the San Diego Chargers Sunday, 27-3, to move to 3-0 on the season and continue to show steady improvement.

The defense came to play, allowing the Chargers—a top-six offense averaging 30 points per game—just three points. Each week, Atlanta’s defense has gotten just a bit harder to score on.

Kansas City started quickly and put 24 points on the board in Week 1. Peyton Manning was stunned and confused in Week 2, and his Broncos were held to 21 points.

Sunday, Philip Rivers—who entered the contest as the league’s second-most efficient passer and had the sixth-best quarterback rating—was held to 173 yards through the air and was slapped with a 45.2 quarterback rating.

This Falcons defense is getting better each week. And while the players on the field are the ones executing the plays, the addition of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is proving to be a huge improvement over the regime of Brian VanGorder, who was Atlanta’s coordinator from 2008 to 2011.

The defense isn’t the only unit showing improvement and shining. And Nolan isn’t the only new coordinator in town. The effects of new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter are just as apparent, just not quite so glaring as Nolan’s work with the defense.

Koetter already had an all-star cast in Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. He already had weapons galore.

Koetter just had to retool how the offense moved the ball—how it scored points. Through two games only the Washington Redskins had more points on the scoreboard. With 27 points scored in San Diego, Atlanta will likely still be in the top of the NFL in scoring once the Week 3 dust settles.

Ryan seems to be the player that’s benefited the most from Koetter’s arrival. His latest 30-of-40 throwing performance versus the Bolts was his most efficient of the season, and gobs higher than his career 61.2 percent completion rate.

Through four seasons in the NFL, Ryan had just 10 games out 62 where he completed at least 70 percent of his passes. That comes out to 2.5 times per season.

In 2012, Ryan already has two 70 percent or better passing games. And he still has 13 games to play. The Falcons sit atop the NFC South at 3-0, and the closest competition is already two games back. The Falcons look every bit the improved team that Blank has told them they have to be.

But there are still 13 games until the real test begins: the postseason.

Until then, if the Falcons continue to improve and reap the rewards of two new coordinators in Atlanta, winning a playoff game—or three—might not be a gargantuan task.