The Atlanta Falcons have put the NFL on notice.
They are really good, and they are going to stay good.
We got a serious hint that the Falcons were ready to emerge in the second year of the Dan Quinn era in the first quarter of the season. Atlanta rebounded from a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay by winning at Oakland and New Orleans. Then, the Falcons sent a message to defending champion Carolina that its hold on the NFC South title is in jeopardy to improve to 3-1.
The fact that the Falcons were 3-1 was just part of the story. They got to 3-1 on the strength of an explosive offense. Atlanta scored 152 points in the first quarter of the season. In its first three victories, Atlanta’s fewest point total was 35.
While that type of offensive explosion is eye opening, the Falcons showed the league more in the last two weeks. Atlanta entered Week 5 with one of the toughest two-game stretches of any team in the NFL this season. It was faced with back-to-back roadies at defending Super Bowl champion Denver and at Seattle, perhaps the toughest place to play in the league. The Falcons stayed out West for the week and are heading back to Georgia with a split. Atlanta outclassed Denver, giving it its first loss of the season. At Seattle, the Falcons went blow-for-blow with the Seahawks and lost in the final seconds after a controversial non-pass interference call that could have resulted in an Atlanta win.
The Falcons showed in those consecutive tough dates they are not a fluke and they will be a team to reckon with the rest of the season.
“I like what our team identity is becoming. So badly did I want the identity to happen right away,” said Quinn, the former successful defensive coordinator in Seattle, after the loss to the Seahawks. “It’s growing stronger, that toughness that resolve to where we can attack in all three phases. That identity is one that I’m pleased that we’re starting to become, the way we want to finish, the different people that get involved. We have had some games where different groups came through.
“Two weeks ago, certainly the defensive line had a big day. Two weeks before that the quarterback and receivers had one. We have had games where the special teams have been involved. Having that team identity, knowing that all phases are going to attack, I feel it’s coming together. We so desperately wanted that to happen last year, I believe that’s where we were going with some of this but it didn’t in terms of all the way. I wanted that to happen overnight but it didn’t. But I feel like this group is growing, quite a bit different from last year’s group.”
The Falcons looked like they were about to be a NFC power broker when they went 13-3 in 2012. However, they won a total of 18 games the next three seasons combined. The Falcons turned to Quinn after firing Mike Smith after seven seasons. The Falcons showed some life in 2015, going 8-8.
But with the toughness Quinn is instilling and the explosion of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons are coming to life this season. Combined with Carolina’s unexpected major stumble into the season – the defending NFC South and NFC champion is 1-5 – the Falcons look like the class of their division. And they don’t appear ready to slow down anytime soon.
Atlanta has too much going for it. It starts with quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones, of course. Ryan is averaging 9.9 yards per pass attempt. The last quarterback to average 10 yards per play was Norm Van Brocklin in 1954.
Ryan, 31, quietly has thrown for more than 4,500 yards in each of the last four seasons. This season, he has thrown for 2,075 yards and is on pace to throw 5,525 yards, which would be an NFL single-season record. Ryan’s favorite target, Jones, is leading the NFL with 656 yards. To prove the balance of this offense, Devonta Freeman is sixth in the league with 450 rushing yards.
Defensively, Atlanta is 24th in the NFL and has given up 166 points, the sixth-most in the NFL. Still, with an offense that is averaging 33.2 points a game, Atlanta can deal with a growing defense. The defense showed significant improvement at Denver and Seattle, allowing a total of 42 points. The Falcons know there is a lot of football remaining, but they have come out of their two-game West road swing knowing they can compete with the best teams in the league.
“We are a very resilient group,” Atlanta standout cornerback Desmond Trufant said after the Seattle game. “We aren’t going to quit, we are going to finish the game. We definitely can take a lot of good things from this, but overall we just have to close the game out.”
With that offense, Trufant should like the Falcons’ chances.