Atlanta Falcons Are NFL's Most Underrated Playoff Contender in 2021August 4, 2021
It's incredibly easy to overlook the Atlanta Falcons heading into the 2021 NFL season. The team's coming off a bad year, starting over with a new coaching staff, lost a franchise great and feels like a dramatic rebuilder.
Which makes the Falcons a pretty great playoff underdog.
No, really. The Falcons botched the end of the Dan Quinn era, letting it painfully drag out with consecutive 7-9 seasons before being fired in the middle of a 4-12 season largely thanks to the goodwill earned by 11 wins and a Super Bowl appearance in 2017. That it ever got to this point is part of the reason the Falcons have such a stench of a rebuilder. At DraftKings, they have the joint-ninth-worst Super Bowl odds at +8000 (bet $100 to win $8,000).
But the Falcons still have the most important thing in football going for them: a quarterback with top-10 potential.
Matt Ryan might be 36 years old, but even last year while slogging through a four-win campaign, he completed 65 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions despite taking 41 sacks. His stellar 83.1 Pro Football Focus grade was higher than the year prior (76.0). Not only was the line bad, he did this while his lead back, Todd Gurley, averaged 3.5 yards per carry, Julio Jones only appeared in nine games, Russell Gage was the team's second-leading receiver and his defense coughed up 25.9 points per game.
Part of the hesitation with the Falcons also stems from the trading away of Jones, the seven-time Pro Bowler and franchise great. But the loss isn't as dramatic as it might seem at face value. Jones, now 32 years old, had injury woes last year, which could be a sign of things to come.
More importantly, Atlanta compensated for this loss. Fourth overall pick Kyle Pitts was the highest-drafted tight end ever. For good reason, too, given his ability to play all over the field and create mismatch nightmares. He'll pair perfectly with Calvin Ridley, last year's leading wideout (1,374 yards and nine touchdowns).
The addition of Mike Davis seemed to fly under the radar after he scored six rushing touchdowns last year and caught 59 of his 70 targets. That receiving ability is an upgrade and will keep him on the field all three downs after Gurley only caught 25 passes last year.
Better spacing because of playmakers means an easier time for Ryan and wider running lanes. Most important of all, though, is the arrival of Arthur Smith as head coach. The architect behind Ryan Tannehill's stunning turnaround in Tennessee now gets to turn loose with a modern great quarterback and top-flight weapons.
Smith is ready to tailor the offense to Ryan's strengths, just like he did for Tannehill. Plus, Ryan was a big part of the job's attractiveness, as he told Pete Schrager on the Flying Coach podcast (h/t Evan Birchfield of The Falcoholic):
"I've always been a fan of Matt Ryan from afar. I know a lot of people who have worked with him and know him well, and I'm just so impressed with how he handles himself. He wants to be coached and Ryan [Tannehill] was the same way. They are different players, and they both have their strengths and both of those guys, when you have players like that they come in there and they work hard."
Also tucked into that interview? Sean McVay, often cited as the foremost offensive mind in the NFL, admitting he steals stuff from Smith.
The defense is still a work in progress. The Falcons need someone at the corner spot opposite 2020 first-rounder A.J. Terrell. Grady Jarrett is still as disruptive as it gets from the interior, but the team's edge-rushers will need to produce consistently.
Still, new coordinator Dean Pees spent the 2018 and '19 seasons in Tennessee producing solid units and has a reputation for playing to his talent's strengths. And in today's NFL, an offense can carry a struggling defense (Kansas City spent the last few years entirely retooling its defense while contending).
Keep in mind outside factors. Seven teams from the conference can make the playoffs, and the Falcons happen to have the third-easiest schedule in the NFL. It's a tricky thing to quantify, and last year's winning percentage isn't the greatest measurement, but it's worth pointing out.
The schedule passes the eye test, too, with what could be easier games against teams such as the New York Giants and Jets in the first five games. Closing the season with three of five on the road hurts, but maybe a game against Buffalo in Week 17 features backups given the Bills' strength.
Tom Brady's march to the Super Bowl in the NFC South skews the perception of the division. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers return all 22 starters, but it's a free-for-all after them. New Orleans will start the post-Drew Brees era with some combination of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill under center, while Carolina will start over yet again with Jets bust Sam Darnold.
Even while winning just four games last year, Atlanta had only a minus-18 point differential, while Carolina finished in third place with five wins and a minus-52 differential. The Falcons outplayed their record and lost seven games by five or fewer points.
Freed of a struggling era with the best offensive mind in place for Matt Ryan since Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons have the upside of a team that can catch many by surprise at a time when the general narrative seems to expect a rebuild.
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