Predicting a Super Bowl winner is a very difficult thing, and I'm not afraid to say I've been terrible at it the last few years. In the age of people tattle-telling on social media any time someone gives a mildly milquetoast opinion, going out on a limb and selecting one team to emerge from the maw of an NFL season is a hard task, but we do it anyway, because it's fun.
Speaking of fun, you know what's going to be fun? The Atlanta Falcons winning their first-ever Super Bowl title on their home field in Atlanta when Super Bowl 53 takes place at the Mercedes-Benz Dome this year.
That's right, folks, I'm taking the Atlanta Falcons to take home the first-ever franchise title just two years after suffering what is, in my mind, the most heart-breaking loss in Super Bowl history.
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How will the Falcons manage to emerge from one of the toughest conferences we've seen in the modern NFL -- not to mention the league's most difficult division -- to take the title?
It's a combination of things.
A Young Defense Emerges
When you think about the Falcons defense, you don't think about a lock-down unit that's been consistently dominant for the last two seasons. In fact, analytics show Atlanta finished in the bottom half of the league both years, ranking 26th in defensive DVOA at Football Outsiders in 2016 and then ranking 22nd in DVOA in 2017. They were, however, remarkably consistent, finishing as a top-10 team in terms of variance (basically they didn't swing wildly over the course of the season) both years. Consistently mediocre isn't what we're looking for in our champion: what we're looking for is a team that can coalesce and hit its stride just as a group of talented young players are all coming together.
Look at the Falcons' last five drafts (prior to this offseason): Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford (2013), Ricardo Allen (2014), Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett (2015), Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell (2016), Takkarist McKinley and Duke Riley (2017) are all duos from those different draft classes who have become starters.
This is a homegrown defense with guys who are mostly on their rookie contracts, but certainly guys who are young and starting to hit their peak. It's like a rich man's Legion of Boom in terms of how it was built: Seattle constructed a defense, made mostly through late-round picks with exceptions like Earl Thomas, that grew together and suddenly burst on the scene to dominate. It's not a coincidence that defense was led by current Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who picked up plenty of advice and theory in team building and roster construction from his time in Seattle.
It's also not a coincidence to see the quality of athletes on this defense. These guys are FAST, quick-twitch SPARQ-type guys. Many of them are modern NFL types as well, position-less guys who can fly all over the field and cover multiple types of offensive players. Quinn preaches about #Brotherhood a lot and it's paid off in terms of gathering his troops, but there is a chess match going on here too in terms of how he arrived, put together a defensive unit, hoping to see it click at a certain point in his tenure.
What we've seen from Atlanta over the last two years indicates a breakout could be coming. In each of the last two seasons, the Falcons made a deep playoff run because of quality offensive play, but also because the defense hit its stride late. In 2016, the Falcons gave up 28.3 (can't make it up) points per game over their first 10 games. They gave up just 22 points per game after their Week 10 bye, a number that drops a full two points if you take out the Patriots' second-half and overtime scoring in the Super Bowl comeback.
In 2017, the Falcons gave up 21 points in their first 10 games of the season before closing out the year, two playoff games included, by giving up just 16.6 points per game over their final eight contests. They shut down the Rams and Eagles in the playoffs and just had a bad red-zone performance against Philly that cost them a chance at an NFC Championship Game.
Dontari Poe is the lone notable defection from last year's defense, and the Falcons home they found a replacement/some depth at defensive tackle by adding Deadrin Senat in the 2018 draft. This defense has youth, speed, gobs of talent and, perhaps most important, consistency in the personnel and coaching, all while trending in a positive direction late in both the last two seasons.
A Bounce-Back Offense
Steve Sarkisian didn't have it easy last year. After an embarrassing departure from USC, he eventually latched on with Alabama and was forced into calling plays and replacing Lane Kiffin for the Tide in their title loss to Clemson. He would then slide over to the Falcons offensive coordinator gig to replace Kyle Shanahan. Those are two tough offensive acts to follow and, even though the Falcons were perfectly fine on offense from a statistical standpoint, there was a clear regression from the MVP season Matt Ryan threw up in 2017.
But that was always going to happen. Ryan's touchdown percentage ballooned to 7.1 in 2017, a wholly unsustainable number. His yards per attempt was a league-leading, eye-popping 9.3. Every time Matt Ryan threw the football, the Falcons were less than a yard away from a first down. That's bananas. But Ryan's regression wasn't the meltdown everyone would have you believe: he still crossed the 4,000-yard threshold, he still completed 64.7 percent of his passes, he still threw 20 touchdowns to 12 interceptions and he still averaged 7.7 yards per attempt (his career average is 7.5).
He had a good season what was a relative disappointment for a team with title hopes coming off an epic offensive year. He also wasn't great in the red zone: despite throwing 15 red-zone touchdowns to just two red-zone interceptions, he completed only 46 percent of his passes inside the 20-yard line. Contrast that with the season prior:
|Red Zone Passing||Comp. %||TD||INT||YPA|
Matt Ryan 2016
Matt Ryan 2017
Don't sweat the yards per attempt there too much: you only have so much space in the red zone after all. The Falcons fell from first to ninth in terms of offensive DVOA rankings. They were second in yards per drive on offense but just seventh in points per drive on offense. They moved the ball effectively most of the year and clammed up near the goal line, basically.
One trend I love for Matt Ryan that doesn't get enough run is his success in his second season with an offensive coordinator. People sleep on the fact that in Kyle Shanahan's first season with Atlanta (2015), Ryan wasn't burning the league to the ground. He threw for more than 4,500 passing yards but had only 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions while completing 66.3 percent of his passes. That's a really good season! But it's also a step back from what he did in 2014.
Ryan has alternated going to the Pro Bowl every year for nearly a decade: he got the nod in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. It's probably just a weird coincidence, but he has dealt with a lot of new schemes and systems. He had Mike Mularkey as his OC, then Dirk Koetter, then Shanahan and now Sarkisian. That's a lot of offensive coordinators for a guy with an MVP trophy on his shelf.
People might not buy wholly into Sark and that's fine, but history tells us Ryan should get comfortable in 2018 with his new OC and the results should be a greater net positive for the offense in terms of putting up points near the goal line. At the very least, Sarkisian's already shown in the preseason an upgrade could be coming in his personnel packages and play-calling near the goal line.
Credit owner Arthur Blank of being largely patient with his franchise. Despite the turnover at offensive coordinator, the Falcons have mostly kept things streamlined. We mentioned the continuity on the roster defensively, but it applies on offense as well: the Falcons have Ryan, Julio Jones and an offensive line that has been built through a combination of free agency and the draft but isn't slapped together.
Thomas Dimitroff remained as the GM through a coaching change, and the decision to do that, while bolstering the front office with the addition of Scott Pioli, has paid dividends for Blank. Dimitroff and Quinn have worked together well -- they both just got extensions -- and credit them for finding a sensible solution to the offseason Julio problem before it spiraled out of control. They've handed out a ton of extensions to young players this offseason too, and as a result enter the season with a healthy roster that's been growing organically. It's not a piecemeal thing here -- snagging someone like Calvin Ridley in the 2018 draft only serves as a supplement to an already stout roster, without asking a rookie wide receiver to contribute too much.
In the modern NFL with training camp shortened and practice sessions limited for everyone, having continuity from year to year is a critical component to sustaining success.
Atlanta was handed a VERY nice setup to start the season by both the NFL Scheduling Gods and the Football Gods in general. The Falcons draw the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles in Philly in Week 1, which is tough, but they might be playing the Eagles without Carson Wentz. At the very least, he'll be limited. Even Nick Foles, who snuck past them in the playoffs, is banged up with a shoulder injury.
The Falcons have only one more road game (!?!) before their Week 8 bye. The play the Panthers, Saints and Bengals at home in the next three weeks, then get the Steelers on the road in Week 5 before hosting the Buccaneers and Giants at home in Weeks 6 and 7. Those aren't easy opponents by any means, but with all those home games and a shot at playing division rivals early when you're healthy, the Falcons have a great chance to jump out to a good start.
Somehow, they never have more than two back-to-back road games after the bye either. They draw the Redskins on the road out of the bye in Week 9, then get the Browns in Cleveland in Week 10 before heading home to play the Cowboys. They get the Saints on the road in Week 12 and the Ravens at home in Week 13. Then they play the Packers on the road in Week 14 before getting the Cardinals in Week 15 at home. Atlanta closes with road games against the Panthers and Buccaneers.
There are a lot of tough teams on the schedule, but that's just life playing in the NFC and the NFC South. By my calculations, the Falcons aren't going any further than the Central Time Zone, and are doing that only twice.
If they can win games early and keep the momentum going, they might have the shortest path of anyone in NFL history when it comes to winning a Super Bowl too.