Atlanta Falcons Clinch Playoff Berth with Win vs. Panthers

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2018

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 14:   Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons and  Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons react after scoring a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks at the Georgia Dome on January 14, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons will have the opportunity to defend their NFC crown after they clinched a playoff spot with a 22-10 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

Despite the team's postseason success a year ago, expectations for the Falcons among the team's fans are likely to be somewhat tempered.

Atlanta owned the league's most dynamic offense in 2016. The Falcons were first in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders, and Matt Ryan was the NFL's MVP. Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman joined Ryan in reaching the Pro Bowl. Ryan and Jones earned first-team All-Pro honors as well.

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to become the San Francisco 49ers' head coach in the offseason, which resulted in Atlanta's offense taking a noticeable step backward in 2017. With Steve Sarkisian at the helm, Ryan and Jones' numbers were well below their 2016 levels.

Ryan hasn't matched last season's impressive 69.9 completion percentage and 117.1 quarterback rating. Jones, meanwhile, didn't average 100 receiving yards per game for the first time since 2012.

Going from an elite offense to merely a very good offense may not seem like a significant distinction. But the Falcons' elite offense helped compensate for a defense that ranked 26th in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, and allowed the eighth-most yards per game (371.2).

Without the offense picking up the slack, the defense's issues have had a bigger impact on the Falcons.

In spite of what has been a disappointing 2017 season, nobody should be surprised if Atlanta makes another run to the Super Bowl.

Carson Wentz's season-ending ACL injury cast serious doubt on the Philadelphia Eagles' title chances, while none of the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers or Minnesota Vikings is far ahead of the pack in the NFC.

And any offense with Ryan, Jones, Freeman and Tevin Coleman has the opportunity to light up the scoreboard on its best day. If Sarkisian figures out a way to maximize all of the talent at his disposal, nobody will want to meet the Falcons in the postseason.

The Falcons may be the ultimate feast or famine team of this year's playoff field.

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