Atlanta Falcons: 5 Reasons They Should Win NFC South
It's not secret that the NFC South is the most competitive and most unpredictable division in the NFL. A team has not won the division twice in a row since its inception in 2002; and each of the four teams have claimed first place in the past four seasons.
Prospects of taking the division championship again in 2011 seem slim for the Atlanta Falcons. Mike Smith's club experienced a magical campaign last season that was plentiful of incredible comebacks and improbable finishes.
Matt Ryan established himself as possibly the most clutch quarterback in the NFL, with a pretty darn good supporting cast to boot, and the defense was just flashy enough to excel despite youth.
But most pundits expect the magic to run out for the Falcons. Atlanta faces a daunting schedule and should see competition from the upstart Buccaneers (upstart could be an understatement) and the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers.
Can the Falcons possibly break the mold and take the division again? Here's some reasons why they may be able to.
Enhanced Pass Rush
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John Abraham has been by far the Falcons most intimidating defensive weapon during the Mike Smith era, but he hasn't been able to do all of the work on his own.
The Falcons had some issues with pass rush last season because opponents simply elected to double-team Abraham and take their chances with opposite rush ends, Kroy Biermann and Chauncey Davis.
While both of those guys have been positive performers for the Falcons in the past, neither of them possessed the imposing presence necessary to take the defensive line's performance to the next level.
Ray Edwards is a great equalizer. The 26-year-old recorded 16.5 sacks in the past few seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
Also, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux still might be one of the best-kept secrets in the NFL, and things might stay that way if he's a secondary subject behind the talk of Abraham and Edwards. Babineaux and the combination of highly touted Peria Jerry and Corey Peters could thrust this defensive line to elite status.
Matt Ryan Continues to Grow
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Matt Ryan, who was outstanding as a rookie quarterback in 2008, has improved drastically year to year since entering the league.
Last season Ryan threw for 3,705 yards and 28 touchdowns to go with just nine interceptions. Despite his statistical success, the Atlanta offense was what some called a "one-sided attack" last season.
Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White were the primary options in Atlanta's air attack. The Falcons struggled to find consistency in the slot and on the opposite side of the field.
This was because Michael Jenkins battled injury and inconsistency, and Harry Douglas was in his first year back after returning from knee surgery.
Atlanta will enter this season with a wider array of options for Ryan, which should help him succeed even more.
Ryan could enter top-five discussions regarding elite quarterback status.
More Offensive Explosion
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Continuing on the addition of a healthy Harry Douglas, the Falcons offense should be more explosive in 2011.
The word "explosion" has been the emphasis in Falcons training camp since the Falcons traded up in the first round of the draft to select former Alabama standout Julio Jones.
Jones showed big-time ability in the preseason opener and continued to impress throughout the preseason. In fact, many who pay close attention to the Falcons passing attack see quite a similarity between Jones and Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White.
Both have a great combination of size, physicality and separation ability.
On top of that, Douglas looked like the 2008 version in the preseason. Douglas has outstanding speed and agility and is the perfect complimentary receiver to the two big guns on the outside.
Atlanta's offense should be an unstoppable force this year. If they're not, they will only have themselves to blame.
The Ability to Dicate Tempo
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A lot of people have asked how a team with an "average" defense last season was able to win 13 games.
Some say the schedule was soft, and that might be a solid answer. But another huge reason for Atlanta's continued consistency in winning is their ability to control tempo.
With Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner, the Falcons offense can strike in a few plays and also grind the clock.
That above statement was evident in comeback victories against the Ravens and Buccaneers last year. The Falcons primary game plan is to run, run and run some more, but there is no doubt Matt Ryan can turn it on and put on performances that rival those of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
This offense isn't just versatile from play to play, it's also one that can seemingly morph into any identity it wants to be. With the additions of explosive athletes, there is reason to believe Atlanta will be the toughest offense to figure out in the entire NFL.
Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson
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Atlanta's Achilles heel in the past has been its weak cornerbacks.
That won't be an issue in 2011. The Falcons return what could possibly be the best cornerback tandem in the NFC South.
Dunta Robinson, who was signed to a bulky contract in the 2010 preseason, was rarely even thrown to last year.
Brent Grimes was a target for defenses because of his lack of height and resume, but teams immediately regretted throwing his way.
Grimes made the Pro Bowl last season and led the team in interceptions with five. His leaping ability has been responsible for a plethora of acrobatic and impressive plays that may not grace the post-game stat sheet.
With an improved pass rush, these two cornerbacks could become huge problems for opposing offenses this year.
It should be a neck to neck race, but Atlanta only improved in the offseason, which gives them no reason to think they can't take the division crown again.
In fact, you shouldn't be surprised if this reloaded team matches its win total from a year ago.