The Atlanta Falcons' 2018 season was one to forget. Besieged by injuries on defense, the Falcons lost four of their first five games and never recovered. After making the Super Bowl in 2016 and earning a wild-card spot in 2017, Atlanta watched last year's playoffs from home.
Given that disappointing campaign, not a lot is expected from the Falcons this year. But that defense has gotten a healthy Deion Jones and Keanu Neal back, and the offense is still loaded with skill-position talent and led by an MVP quarterback.
Atlanta could well be the most slept-on team in the NFC in 2019.
To say the Atlanta defense was a hot mess last year is being kind. The team ranked toward the bottom of the NFL in a fistful of statistical categories—points allowed (25th), yards allowed (28th), passing yards allowed (27th) and rushing yards allowed (25th).
But in fairness, that defense lost its two best players before the season reached its second week. Jones missed 10 games with a foot injury suffered in the team's Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Neal did one better—his season ended in that same game courtesy of an ACL tear.
As Tim Weaver wrote for Falcons Wire, the importance of those two talented young players to the Falcons defense can be summed up in one simple stat. According to Next Gen Stats, since 2016 Atlanta's defense has allowed a touchdown rate of 3.6 percent when Neal and Jones are both on the field. When one or both are sidelined, that number jumps to 6.3 percent.
The return of Jones and Neal isn't the only good news for the Falcons defense in 2019. After parting ways with both coordinators in the offseason, head coach Dan Quinn will run the defense this season. He told Kelsey Conway of the team's website that Atlanta is going to return to playing physical, disciplined defense.
"More than anything the tweaks in the scheme along with the tweaks in the style to make sure we recapture that," Quinn said. "I'm going to make sure the things are the most important stay at the front of our thinking, and the physicality and the ball-hawking will certainly be some of those."
Now, Atlanta's defense isn't suddenly going to morph into Chicago's. In the team's Super Bowl season, the Falcons were 25th in total defense and 27th in scoring defense. Those aren't the sort of numbers that inspire terror in opponents. But two years ago, the Falcons were a top-10 defense in both those categories. If Quinn can get the unit back into the top half of the NFL, the Falcons will be in business.
That's because Atlanta doesn't have to be a great defensive team to be a force to contend with in the NFC South. The offense is loaded for bear.
It got lost somewhat in last year's struggles, but quarterback Matt Ryan's 2018 season was statistically similar to his 2016 MVP campaign—4,924 passing yards, 35 touchdown passes, just seven interceptions and a passer rating of 108.1. The 12th-year veteran told ESPN's Vaughn McClure that he thinks the Falcons have what it takes to get back to the Super Bowl.
"The group of guys that we have, we have a locker room of competitive, hardworking, unselfish people, and I think it's the people in our building that give us a great chance to get back and obviously hopefully win a Super Bowl," Ryan said. "We've got a great coaching staff. We've got a combination of guys that are going to try and put the players that we have in the best position to be successful."
Ryan is in a good position to be successful because he's supported by an array of offensive weaponry. Julio Jones is arguably the best wide receiver in football. Second-year pro Calvin Ridley caught 10 touchdown passes as a rookie. Mohamed Sanu is a capable veteran wideout. Tight end Austin Hooper quietly caught 71 passes in his third season. And while tailback Devonta Freeman lost most of the 2018 season to groin and foot injuries, he's a two-time Pro Bowler who has topped 1,100 yards from scrimmage three times in five seasons.
Just like on defense, there's reason to believe that the 2019 Falcons could be better offensively than last year's sixth-ranked unit. After allowing 42 sacks in 2018—the 13th-most in the league—Atlanta spent a pair of first-round picks on guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary to retool the right side of the offensive line. The Falcons also showed much-maligned offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian the door and replaced him with Dirk Koetter.
Ryan told CBS Sports Radio that he's eager to work again with Koetter, who was Atlanta's offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2014.
"I think we both learned a lot in the last four years since we've kind of gone our separate ways and competed against each other, and we're both further along at this point in our careers," Ryan said. "I'm excited about working with him. He brings a lot to our organization, to our team, a lot of knowledge, and it's going to be great."
This isn't to say the Falcons are without issues. Atlanta ranked 20th in takeaways and tied for 22nd in sacks last year. With Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco, there's not much on the backfield depth chart behind Freeman.
But if you look at Atlanta's roster—really look at it—you'll see a team that's comparably talented to the one that won 10 games two years ago. And the team that won 11 games the year before and had a 28-3 lead over the Patriots in the third quarter of the Super Bowl before the, um, unpleasantness.
However, despite that fact, the Falcons are all but an afterthought in a division that most have already ceded to the New Orleans Saints. The Falcons are +155 (bet $100 to win $155) to make the playoffs at all at Caesars and rank in the NFC's bottom half in odds to make the Super Bowl.
The Saints are indeed a very good team—one of the leading contenders to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIV. But the Falcons aren't an also-ran. They're at the very least a solid contender for one of the NFC's wild-card spots. And frankly, discounting Atlanta as a threat to win the division based solely off a down 2018 is selling the team woefully short.
Assuming that Atlanta's defense makes through Week 1 without being eviscerated by major injuries, the talent gap between the Falcons and Saints isn't all that wide.
That so few think so is more a matter of perception than reality.
And that perception is skewed.