Atlanta Falcons Are a Super Bowl-Bound Juggernaut That No One Saw Coming

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 22, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after defeating the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Prior to the 2016 NFL regular season, nine Bleacher Report experts predicted who would meet in Super Bowl LI.

Zero picked the Atlanta Falcons.

That same week, 42 ESPN commentators made their preseason Super Bowl predictions

Zero picked the Falcons. 

Over at NFL.com, 20 NFL media analysts did the same thing

Zero picked the Falcons. 

Twelve Sports Illustrated experts made their picks

Zero picked the Falcons. 

The smarty-pants at FiveThirtyEight conducted a preseason team-by-team forecast

They ranked eight NFC teams ahead of Atlanta. 

We were all wrong about Dan Quinn's team.

We underestimated how much of a leap that offense would make in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's second season. We failed to see that veteran quarterback Matt Ryan was on the brink of a breakout campaign at the age of 31.

We didn't realize the running game, which averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt in 2015, was primed to explode and bring much-needed balance to the offense. We failed to recognize that the rebuilt Atlanta offensive line was no longer a punchlineit was becoming an asset.

And we had no idea how good Quinn's revamped defense was. That unit surrendered more yards than anyone else in football in 2014 and had a league-low 19 sacks while sending just one guy to the Pro Bowl in 2015.

But it turned the corner in 2016.

And now, after embarrassing the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in Sunday's NFC title game, the Falcons are—improbablySuper Bowl-bound. 

We didn't see any of it coming. 

Nobody expected the offense to lose veteran wide receiver Roddy White and then score more regular-season points than all but six teams in NFL history. Nobody expected Ryan—after throwing 47 interceptions in three consecutive non-winning seasons—to suddenly post the fifth-highest single-season passer rating and second-highest qualified yards-per-attempt average in league history. 

Raise your hand if you had Ryan earning a first-team All-Pro nod. Raise your hand if you figured he'd exit the regular season as the favorite to win MVP. None of you are signaling touchdown

Nobody expected the Falcons to rank fourth in yards per rushing attempt, with backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combining for 2,482 yards from scrimmage on 430 touches. Few expected the line—led by recent free-agent home runs Alex Mack and Andy Levitre, as well as homegrown talent Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder—to surrender the eighth-lowest number of total quarterback pressures during the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Two years ago, the Falcons ranked 29th in that category. Three years ago? Dead last

Nobody expected that rebuilt "D" to be this good this fast.

It had just 23 sacks in its first 20 games under Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith, but it has 35 in the 14 games it's played since. During the first 26 games of the Dan Quinn era, the Falcons gave up 24.2 points per game. In the last eight weeks, that average has dropped to 20.5 despite the fact that they've faced four top-12 offenses during that span.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Aaron Ripkowski #22 of the Green Bay Packers fumbles the ball in the second quarter after contact with Jalen Collins #32 of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Geo
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

These aren't the Falcons—inconsistent and unstable on offense, lacking teeth on defense—that we became accustomed to between 2013 and 2015, when they won just 18 of 48 games and made no playoff appearances.

But these also aren't the Falcons we knew before that. 

These aren't the Falcons that won 13 games while ranking in the top five in points scored and allowed in 2010. Those Falcons fell on their face in the playoffs, turning the ball over four times in a 27-point home divisional-round loss to the Packers. 

These aren't the Falcons that won 13 games while ranking in the top seven in points scored and allowed in 2012. Those Falcons blew a 17-point lead in the NFC Championship Game. In two playoff games that year, Ryan threw three interceptions and the defense surrendered 56 points.

Wedged between those two playoff failures was a 24-2 Wild Card Weekend loss to the New York Giants in 2011.

Put together, Ryan became known as a quarterback prone to wilting in big spots, and the team became infamous for excelling between September and December before disappearing in January. 

This team is different, and not just because Ryan is one of only four position players left over from those days. This team is different because it's been built to win in January and February, too. 

The results are impossible to argue. 

The Falcons in the 2016 NFL playoffs
CategoryTotal
Points for80
Points allowed41
Turnovers0
Takeaways4
Penalties6
Third downs16 /25
Pro Football Reference/NFL.com

Shanahan—who is in line to become the San Francisco 49ers' head coach after the season, according to NFL.com's Michael Silver—has revived Ryan's career while injecting life into an offense that was stale and unimaginative before he arrived.

Shanahan's quarterback-friendly system takes a ton of pressure off Ryan, who in the past was all too often forced to play Superman. The vertical element still exists, but a balanced approach with more safe passes allows the deep passing game to come about more naturally. 

Not only did Atlanta have the league's most efficient and potent offense during the regular season, but the Falcons have scored 80 points in two playoff games against recent Super Bowl champions. In those victories, they've converted 64 percent of their third downs, they have 58 total first downs, the offense has been penalized just twice and they've controlled the ball for almost 67 minutes. 

In those two games, Ryan has completed 70.7 percent of his passes for 9.7 yards per attempt, he has seven passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 132.6. 

Meanwhile, Quinn's defense has surrendered only 41 points in two playoff wins, holding the Seahawks to 20 and the Packers to 21. Sunday's performance marked the first time in seven weeks that the Packers scored fewer than 30 points in game. According to PFF, the red-hot Aaron Rodgers was pressured on 41 percent of his dropbacks. The Packers turned the ball over twice for the first time since November, and their running game was nonexistent. 

Considering the damage Green Bay had been doing on offense, it was somewhat of a dominant performance for a defense casual football fans are only now becoming familiar with.

You may have started to realize in November or December that 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley had become a star, but there was no bigger difference-maker on Sunday than 23-year-old second-year cornerback Jalen Collins, who forced a game-swaying fumble when the Packers were still within striking distance in the second quarter. 

Then there's rangy 22-year-old rookie linebacker Deion Jones, who was again tremendous against Green Bay. There's 23-year-old linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who starred against the Seattle Seahawks last week. There's third-year defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman, who had a sack and two pressures this week. And there's 21-year-old first-round rookie safety Keanu Neal, who had 72 tackles as a solid starter during the regular season. 

The Falcons are relying on a handful of extremely young and talented defenders—kids who are only getting better each week—but they've complemented that group with veterans like Dwight Freeney, Brooks Reed and Jonathan Babineaux. 

Matt Ryan's last six games
CategoryTotal
Points/game39.0
Comp.%72.8
TD18
INT0
YPA9.5
Rating133.3
Pro Football Reference/NFL.com

Rather quickly and quietly, the Falcons have become a great all-around football team. They're no longer reliant solely on Ryan, and without that proverbial pressure, the franchise quarterback has finally spread his wings. 

He hasn't thrown an interception in six weeks, and it's no coincidence that the Falcons haven't lost during that stretch. In those six games, they've outscored their opponents by an average margin of 39-19, with five of the six victories coming by 16 or more points. 

Get used to these Falcons. They won't lie down in Super Bowl LI. They have too much momentum, they're too healthy (they had nobody listed on the injury report entering Sunday's game) and at this point it's difficult to find a weak spot. 

At this point, we can only wonder how none of us knew to expect this. 

     

Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Pro Football Focus.

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.