2018 NFL Over-Under Win Totals: Watch out for a Matt Ryan bounce back, big Falcons year
Atlanta is a very complete team but doesn't get the same headlines the Saints get
The Atlanta Falcons did a pretty good job of showing up to brunch in 2017 and convincing us all they weren't driving the strugglebus after the Super Bowl version of a "Hangover"-style blackout. Atlanta was in the NFC South hunt until the end of the season and barely missed out on beating the eventual title-winning Eagles in a hard-fought game in Philadelphia.
Unlike last year, there is not much upheaval for Atlanta. Heavily-scrutinized offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian stuck around for Year 2 and the Falcons used their first-round pick to add a weapon as they doubled down on Alabama receivers with the selection of Calvin Ridley to pair with Julio Jones.
Two notable, underrated departures to keep an eye on: Dontari Poe from the defensive line and Taylor Gabriel from the wide receiver corps. Neither is a headline-snagging name, but Poe helped shore up the interior along with Grady Jarrett, while Gabriel provided a field-stretching dimension for the offense.
Atlanta's defense definitely took a step forward last year, even if the offense took a step back. Dan Quinn's team managed to outperform its expected win total for the third straight year.
Vegas isn't banking on them cratering out of nowhere,.
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Early Schedule Analysis
The Falcons were gifted the opposite of a hangover by the NFL scheduling gods this year, with a Week 8 bye and a whopping six home games coming before the bye. Dan Quinn's teams have started hot early and they have also performed pretty well home (5-3 last year in their new digs, 5-3 in the final year of the Georgia Dome). Even with road games against the Eagles and Steelers, there's a very good opportunity to jump out to 5-2 before the bye. Home games against the Panthers, Saints, Buccaneers and Giants aren't guaranteed wins, but Atlanta will know the importance. No home division games after Halloween means wins early are important. The Redskins and Browns on the road out of the bye aren't bad matchups, then they alternate with the Cowboys (home), Saints (away), Ravens (home), Packers (away) and Cardinals (home) before playing the Panthers and Buccaneers on the road to close out the season. A hot start is critical to a good season.
Why They'll Go Over
Matt Ryan's been pretty darn good and he was just paid accordingly for it, this offseason. People are sort of burying Ryan and Sarkisian (mostly Sark) for last season, but the Falcons weren't bad. They were good! Atlanta had the ninth-ranked offense by DVOA, were second in yards per drive and seventh in points per drive. They weren't historically dominant like 2016, but being historically dominant in back-to-back years when you lose your very smart offensive coordinator to another team is hard to do. Which is a long way of saying that the Falcons are a good bet to bounce back in 2018 with Ryan going into his second season with Sark calling plays. Offensively it's just hard to see them stumbling barring a major injury -- they have the running game with Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman, plus Julio plus Ridley, plus an above average offensive line. They should be good. Defensively they could really make a leap. The Falcons have finished 26th and 22nd the last two seasons in defensive DVOA, but in both seasons we've seen their defense start to peak down the stretch. It's a unit loaded with young talent at every level, mostly on cheap contracts, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley emerge as one of the most dangerous pass-rushing tandems in the league.
Why They'll Go Under
The offense could not make that jump forward under Sark -- if the Falcons struggle again in 2018 there will be increasing pressure to potentially make some changes. (Not saying they will, but people will point fingers.) If the offensive line isn't playing at a high level, it could lead to a lack of protections for Ryan and a weakened running game. Ridley doesn't guarantee to make the offense more explosive out of the gate, if only because rookie wideouts can take time to adapt to the NFL. The defense has looked really good for some stretches at various points of each of the last two seasons, but it's losing a big run-stuffer in Poe (Jack Crawford or rookie Deadrin Senat will have to fill the void). Maybe they get off to a slow start on both sides of the ball, don't hold serve at home early and stare down a brutal schedule after their bye. Let's not sleep on how difficult the division will be in 2018: maybe one of the other teams (Carolina or Tampa Bay) ends up being bad, but it's not likely two bad teams come out of the NFC South. This is the toughest neighborhood in football.
What They're Saying
"I think Takk McKinley is going to be one of those breakout players. You talk about Vic Beasley being the pass rusher there. I think by the end of the season, McKinley is going to be THE dominate rusher there."
-- CBS Sports' Pete Prisco joining me on the Pick Six Podcast
I conservatively see the Falcons as going 10-6 and like them to really take a huge leap forward on both sides of the ball, so there's no choice but to gamble on them going up top here with a bounce back season from Ryan.
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