In their fifth season in the Mike Smith regime, undefeated with 10 games remaining in the regular season and four games ahead of the nearest divisional threat to their place atop the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons' path to a championship should be pretty easy, right?
While a 6-0 record has the Falcons pegged as early Super Bowl favorites, four big obstacles still stand between them and their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history:
The Falcons allow 143.8 yards per game, fifth-most in the league. Opposing teams average 5.2 yards per carry—only the Buffalo Bills allow a higher average. The return of defensive tackle Corey Peters, which could happen as soon as this week, figures to help improve those numbers. By how much, however, is anyone's guess at this point.
It may be a passing league, but the Falcons will need to do something about it because a porous run defense only improves opponents' chances to success on the ground, in play-action and thus overall.
The Second Half of the Season
While we won't know for sure who the contenders are until December, for now it seems the Falcons have had the fortunes of playing an easy schedule up to this point, with their opponents so far an NFL-lowest 13-24.
Hence the added pressure on the Falcons in the second half of the season. Not only because the rest of their schedule encompasses the all-important final stretch to the regular season, but also because it includes games against the NFC East's historically tough Eagles, Cowboys and Giants, as well as five more division matchups.
How the Falcons fare in those games will be a good indication of whether or not this team is for real.
But they also shown an affinity to stoop to their opponents' level after squeaking past the hopeless Panthers and Raiders. In both of those games, the Falcons made it hard on themselves with silly mistakes, bonehead penalties and turnovers that were more their own fault than the result of a solid play by their opponent.
The Playoff Wall
It has haunted the Falcons three of the past four years: Coasting past teams in the regular season only to disappear on the big stage.
The excuse in 2008 was that they were a young team.
In 2010, they were missing explosiveness.
in 2011, the coaches didn't know what they were doing.
Fast forward to today: Matt Ryan is in his fifth season in the league, Julio Jones is the explosive player Atlanta hoped he would be and new coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan are exceeding expectations.
There are no more excuses for the Falcons. It's simple: Win or go home.