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Atlanta Falcons: Mapping out Atlanta's Path to the Playoffs, Super Bowl

Justin BlanchardContributor IIJanuary 16, 2017

Atlanta Falcons: Mapping out Atlanta's Path to the Playoffs, Super Bowl

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    Expectations were low when Mike Smith took over a disastrous Atlanta Falcons team in 2008.

    Four years later, those expectations have reached an all-time high.

    At 6-0 heading into Week 7, the Falcons are early favorites to not only return to the playoffs for the fourth time in the past five seasons but to actually win the Lombardi Trophy. 

    To do so, however, they'll need to accomplish a few things.

    Here's a look at what exactly the Falcons will need to do to reach Super Bowl XLVII.

Better Pass Rushing

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    Back in June, NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah noticed a common theme among recent Super Bowl winners: effective pass rushing.

    He pointed out that four of the last five champions finished third or better in the league in sacks.

    At the moment, the Falcons are ranked 13th in the NFL in sacks with 13.

    Sure, Atlanta can get by on that kind of pass rushing against poor passing teams like the Chiefs, Panthers and Redskins.

    But the Falcons are going to have a tough time keeping up against such dominant passing offenses as the Lions' and the Giants' unless they can improve their pass rushing come playoff time.

    Falcons fans know first-hand what can happen if they don't.

Keep Forcing Turnovers

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    Arguably, nothing has been more integral to the Falcons' perfect start to this season than turnovers.

    Take a look at any of Atlanta's six games this season, and you'll see that from John Abraham's sack-fumble of Matt Cassel in Week 1 to Asante Samuel's pick six against the Raiders last Sunday, the Falcons' defensive turnovers have either indirectly or directly led to victory.

    In Smith's three postseason games, turnovers have been either a battle the Falcons have lost (minus-5 margin against the Cardinals and Packers) or non-existent at all (none forced against the Giants).

    Fortunately for Atlanta, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has turned the Falcons into one of league's most opportunistic defenses (tied for first in takeaways with 17).

    If the Falcons want to ensure a spot in the Super Bowl, that defense will need to stay as such not only for the rest of the year but in the postseason as well.

Stick with the New Offensive Identity

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    The Falcons repeatedly said this offseason that they planned to reduce Michael Turner's carries so as to keep him fresh for the postseason.

    That better not mean they're planning to unleash him then.

    As much as Turner may not like it, new Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has turned one of the league's most run-heavy teams into a pass-happy attack.

    And it couldn't have been a better decision.

    Aside from his three-interception day against the Raiders, Matt Ryan has been playing some of the best football of his life, and that has translated to never-before seen success for the Falcons.

    As important as a strong ground game has been in the past, it's no longer is a priority in today's NFL. That isn't to say it isn't good to have one, however, and that's where Turner still has value. 

    But, it would be a mistake for him to once again become the focal point of Atlanta's offense come December, not when this new-look offense is working so well. 

Beat the Contenders

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    It's something the Falcons have been notorious for under Smith: They pound the cellar-dwellers but can't beat the playoff-caliber teams.

    That was especially true in 2010 when the Falcons went 13-3 but defeated only four teams with a winning record. It was much of the same last year, as only two of their 10 wins came against teams that finished above .500.

    The trend has continued, so far, this season: While the Falcons are 6-0, none of the teams they have defeated currently have a winning record, and of them perhaps only the Broncos are true playoff contenders.

    But as they prepare to play the Eagles next week, and then later the Cardinals, Cowboys, Lions and Giants—all teams that could end the season with a winning record—the Falcons will have ample opportunity to prove the league wrong.

    More importantly, coming away victorious in most, if not all, of those games would provide Atlanta with great confidence and momentum heading into the postseason.

Be Anything but the Top Seed

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    Yes, it's a crazy idea.

    After all, the top seed gives you a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

    But history says those are pretty overrated perks.

    Since 2005, only one top-seeded team has won the Super Bowl—the New Orleans Saints in 2009. The six other championship games were won by three sixth-seeded, one fifth-seeded, one third-seeded and one second-seeded team.

    Regular-season dominance is great, but it doesn't look as though that consistently adds up to postseason success.

    And while it's true home-field advantage has always played a big role in the Falcons' success, it would appear that role has diminished this season: Two of their three home victories have been decided by three points or less, and one by six, while two of their away victories have been decided by 21 points or more and one by seven.

    If the Falcons stay perfect, the road to the Super Bowl would go through the Georgia Dome. But from the looks of things, they might be better off if it didn't.

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