Updated Nov. 11
For weeks we've been waiting for the right time to say it, hesitant because it just didn't seem right to say the Atlanta Falcons were a real playoff threat. Is it because we expected them to take the young-team fall we anticipated from a group that came into the season in rebuilding mode?
That hasn't happened, so it's time to let it rip:
The Falcons are a real playoff threat.
There's no denying it any more. The way they handled the New Orleans Saints on Sunday is the all the proof we need.
The Atlanta defense was the last remaining question for this team, but shutting down Drew Brees the way it did says that unit has improved enough to call it a playoff defense.
The story of the Falcons is the best of this season in a league full of great ones. It's so shocking that many inside the building are even surprised, even if they won't admit it.
This was to be a rebuilding season with an eye on 2010 as the playoff year. It was a three-year plan to turn the Falcons around. First-year coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff won't admit it now, but they had to be realistic and a three-year plan to turn the Falcons around made sense.
Now that timetable is off. This team is good.
They can run it. They can throw it with Matt Ryan and the defense is growing up under a rising coaching star, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
If the Falcons make the playoffs and Smith isn't the coach of the year, then the award should be eliminated.
The Falcons started out in the CBSSports.com Power Rankings at No. 31, which means one away from last. Now they're in the top 10. That's hard to believe.
After the Michael Vick fiasco, the Bobby Petrino mess and the feeling of disconnect from Atlanta fans, the Falcons are a great story. The best thing for their chances to win the division is that Tampa Bay and Carolina -- the two teams ahead of them in the NFC South -- both have to come to Atlanta.
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The amazing thing about the Atlanta start is that most thought the two lines would be problem areas. The coaching staff said they were the worry spots before the season. They've been the opposite of that.
The offensive line plays with a nasty streak, making up for some athletic limitations, and the defensive line has overachieved, especially inside. Defensive end John Abraham is having a huge season rushing the passer, but the rest of the defense isn't exactly star-studded.
Atlanta also starts four rookies if you count the nickel back (Chevis Jackson), the third receiver (Henry Douglas) and injured left tackle Sam Baker, who is expected back in a few weeks. The best of the first-year players is Ryan. Without him, this wouldn't be happening. He's the best rookie quarterback since Peyton Manning.
He sees the field. He plays with a swagger. He works his butt off doing the little things. He's cut from the Manning-Tom Brady cloth.
The Falcons did the right thing starting him on opening day, thinking that this would be a building year for the future. But Ryan's play has accelerated the timetable.
So go ahead and say it: The Falcons are for real.
The Power Rankings through Week 10: