Under the Headset  


Will Falcons' maturation keep them climbing in NFC South?


Each and every year, you can point to one or two defining moments that shape the outcome of your season. The Atlanta Falcons experienced such a moment on Sunday as they shifted the balance of power in the NFC South.

Even though Atlanta entered the week with a one-game lead in the division, they had yet to make a compelling case that they were ready to challenge for a playoff spot. And while defending champion Carolina Panthers hadn't lived up to expectations in 2016, they still had the league's reigning MVP (Cam Newton) on offense, and a formidable defense with a stout line and the most athletic trio of linebackers (Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson) in the NFL. In fact, the Panthers' defense was so respected, many experts were imploring fantasy owners to stash Matt Ryan on the bench because it was such an unfavorable matchup. Well, 503 yards and four touchdowns later, Ryan had the fantasy experts sending out apologies and analytics experts rewriting algorithms.

Atlanta's 48-33 victory announces the Falcons as the new team to beat in the NFC South and hints that, in just his second year, Dan Quinn might be on the verge of building something special in Atlanta. Quinn is an excellent coach cut from the Pete Carroll school-using modern techniques to communicate both toughness and enthusiasm. With marquee weapons like Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones set on offense, Quinn's primary team-building challenge is to construct a defense that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Falcons have missed on a number of defensive draft choices, even before Quinn's arrival. They need to duplicate the shrewd drafting of Seattle, where the Seahawks found Richard Sherman in the fifth round.

But while Quinn attempts to create a defense similar to the marauding unit in Seattle, it helps that Matt Ryan is playing the best football of his career. Ryan is currently completing passes at a rate of 72 percent with an average of 10.5 yards per attempt, the best in the league. In his previous eight seasons, he has never completed better than 69 percent of his passes and his best yards-per-attempt average came during his rookie year at 7.9. Meanwhile, he is on pace to throw for 44 touchdowns to just eight interceptions this season. Both would be career hallmarks.

Jones staked his claim to being the best wideout in football with 12 receptions for 300 yards Sunday -- including the game-breaker, a crossing pattern that he took 75 yards to the house in the fourth quarter -- but this year's Falcons have other options. When Jones was held to one catch and 16 yards against the Saints in Week 3, Ryan still steered the Falcons to victory. Already, he has completed passes to 11 different receivers with seven of them catching touchdown passes. Last year, DeVonta Freeman was second on the team with 73 receptions, but this year, he checks in fifth on the list. That's a sign of the maturation of this offense and just how many weapons Ryan has at his disposal.

The more Ryan produces, the more offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan moves up the ranks of head-coaching candidates. Ryan was good before Shanahan got there, but if he has a career year, Shanahan will get the reward. Last year, he tried to force Ryan into his stretch zone play-actions. This year he appears to be letting Ryan do more of the pure dropback passing he is so good at.

This is a group of offensive weapons that had touchdown drives of 71, 98, 99, 92 and 75 yards on Sunday. And while the skill position players will get all the love -- the trio of Freeman, Jones and Ryan rival that of Bell, Antonio Brown and Big Ben as the best triplets in the NFL -- one of the unsung heroes in the Falcons' resurgence is Alex Mack. He has been a stellar addition to an offensive line that was among the league's worst for multiple seasons. On Sunday, Mack sprung Freeman's first-quarter touchdown run by double-teaming the defensive tackle before climbing to the second level and sealing off Luke Kuechly, one of the league's most instinctive linebackers. Because of Mack and the improved play along their offensive front, the Falcons are on pace to rush for 20 touchdowns (up from 13 in 2015). After averaging 3.82 yards per carry last year, the Falcons are running for 4.65 yards a pop this season, and the dynamic Freeman has increased his per-carry average nearly two full yards from a season ago (3.98 to 5.85).

What Quinn is doing on defense will ultimately mark his tenure. Rookies Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell have added athleticism to the linebacking corps, and Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are among the better pairs of starting corners in the league. That having been said, the Falcons still rely too much on the ancient Dwight Freeney for pass rush, and after a month of football, they are still giving up more than 30 points a game.

While the Falcons have a two-game lead and an early tiebreaker advantage over the Panthers, they also have a rough patch ahead -- road games at Denver and Seattle and, two weeks later, a home date with the Packers. Recall that the Falcons started off 5-0 last year before losing seven out of eight games and slouching toward an 8-8 finish. If they can get to the halfway mark at 6-2, the bandwagon will really get crowded.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.



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