As our previews of all 32 NFL teams continue, we turn our attention to the NFC South, beginning the division with the Atlanta Falcons, who won the division last season and made the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
The Falcons’ season ended on a bitter note in February, giving up a 28-3 lead to lose to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI by a score of 34-28. Leading up to that, though, the Falcons had a strong year in which they finished the regular season 11-5 to secure their first division title since 2012. The team didn’t have any notable additions in the offseason, so the front office must think the team the Falcons had last season is good enough to have similar success in 2017. The team made UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley its first-round draft pick.
QB Matt Ryan had the best season of his career in 2016, completing 69.9% of his passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions — all career bests. The bulk of his production went to WR Julio Jones, who recorded 83 receptions for 1,409 yards but just 6 touchdowns in 14 games. WR Mohamed Sanu played 15 games, with 59 receptions for 653 yards and 4 touchdowns. RB Devonta Freeman ran the ball 227 times for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns;l he added 54 receptions for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns in the passing game. RB Tevin Coleman had 118 rushing yards in 13 games, totaling 520 yards and 8 touchdowns, in addition to 3 receiving touchdowns on 31 receptions. Not surprisingly with the numbers Ryan put up, the Falcons’ offense scored the most points in the NFL last season, and their 540 points was 71 points better than the No. 2 team. They needed to score a lot because the defense allowed opponents to score the sixth-most points in the league.
When a player has a career year, you expect him to slip back a bit the next season so don’t expect Ryan to get close to 5,000 yards this season, but 4,500 yards or better is likely given that he’s surpassed that number every season since 2012. He still has all of his offensive weapons entering the year, and I expect TE Austin Hooper to take a step forward in 2017 after a rookie season that saw his reps increase as the year went on. One thing to note is the team has a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian, who replaces Kyle Shanahan, who got the head coaching job in San Francisco this offseason. With the way the offense played last year, I wouldn’t expect Sarkisian to stay from the offensive game plan that obviously worked well in 2016.
The Falcons open their post-Super Bowl season on the road against the Bears in Week 1. They get a home game in Week 2 as they play their first regular-season game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, hosting the Packers on Sunday night. Up next on the schedule is a road game at the Lions, followed by a home game against the Bills in Week 4. That leads into an early bye in Week 5, followed by a home contest with the Dolphins. Week 7 has a Super Bowl rematch on tap as the Falcons head to Gillette Stadium to try to avenge their overtime loss to the Patriots. They host the Cowboys in Week 10 and then take a cross-country flight to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in Week 11’s Monday night contest. A divisional battle with the Buccaneers in Atlanta follows in Week 12. Another primetime game is slated for Week 14, with the Falcons hosting the Saints on Thursday night. The same teams meet two weeks later, this time at the Superdome in New Orleans in Week 16. The Falcons finish out their regular season schedule at home against the Panthers in Week 17. I think the Falcons are looking at a 10-12 win season this year, and I’m leaning more toward the higher end of the range.