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Atlanta Falcons look tough under Dan Quinn? No surprise there

ATLANTA -- Strolling the sidelines before Monday's season opener, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff carried the type of cool demeanor that has so often defined him -- but also escaped him late in each of the past two years.

A new season often brings such serenity to a man in his position. In this league, a few months' time is generally enough to heal a bruised soul.

"I feel really good about this," Dimitroff said, looking in the direction of his new head coach, Dan Quinn, who was making some rounds of his own. " (Quinn) just has such a positive demeanor. It's contagious. Everyone feeds off of it."

As a reporter or a fan, it's easy to dismiss this optimism as spin. Hope in early September is like a weed: The winter might kill it, but even the slightest bit of sunshine can bring it back to the surface. Atlanta's recent history is a perfect example.

But soon after the Falcons' season kicked off Monday night, you didn't need words to make you believe this year might actually be different. You only needed eyes. Through most of four quarters -- yes, even as Chip Kelly's offense stepped up its pace -- the attitude and approach on both sides of the football looked notably different.

"It's all about playing fast and physical," wide receiver Julio Jones said on the field immediately following Atlanta's 26-24 win over Philadelphia, fresh off a performance that earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

It begs a question: Shouldn't we all have seen this coming?

No doubt the result of too many unfulfilled expectations over the past few years, the Falcons made changes -- starting with the addition of Quinn -- that should've made Monday's success less of a surprise than it was. That's not to say the NFL is full of haters or doubters when it comes to the Falcons. Nobody can be blamed for taking a wait-and-see approach to a team with a first-time head coach. But among all of the Week 1 overreactions, it might not be an overreaction at all to say the Falcons have jumped to a new tier of NFC contenders in just one game.

Think about it: The question has rarely been a matter of talent and skills -- but rather, toughness and strategy. When you couple Quinn's culture with new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's creativity, you already have remedied a bulk of those previous deficiencies. That's an oversimplified perspective, no doubt, but the premise holds some weight.

And we saw exactly that Monday. We saw it in the creative ways Shanahan deployed Matt Ryan, utilizing play action and a fast pace to turn an offense that has been so inexplicably boring into one that actually pushes the potential of its skills players. It is a reminder of Shanahan's schematic brilliance.

How did we not see this coming? How did we so quickly forget what Shanahan did with Matt Schaub in Houston? Why didn't we recall the transcendent rookie season Shanahan fostered from Robert Griffin III? Give the guy Ryan and Julio Jones and Roddy White, and you've got 2016's front-runner for upcoming head-coaching vacancies.

But this is far from Shanahan's show right now. It's one thing to employ smart offensive strategies. It's quite another to have a team willing to buy into a culture of toughness and physicality. Quinn has turned a soft (yes, soft) defense into an attacking unit capable of keeping pace with Philly's up-tempo attack. The Falcons were tackling better than we've seen them do in years. And while they did, in fact, let the Eagles back into the game during the second half, a late third-down stop that led to a crucial missed field goal proved they weren't willing to lay down easy.

This might sound like a far-too-excited look at a team after just one game, but let us not forget just how bad Atlanta's defense performed last season. On average, teams put up more plays and yards per drive against the Falcons than any other team in the NFL. You could easily make a case that Atlanta's D was the league's softest, most vulnerable unit. And so, when the Falcons are able to thwart a team that is constantly praised for its incredible pace, that's not just an impressive start. That's an incredible turnaround.

We'll have to find out how teams are able to adjust to what Atlanta did Monday. This was the first chance any of us got to see what Quinn would do with the Falcons' defense and Shanahan with the offense. Now, opponents will have plenty of tape to dissect and scheme against.

The next two games are against the Giantsand Cowboys, both on the road. If the Falcons can pull out even one of two wins, they'll be sitting at 2-1 overall and within conference play. You easily could have made the case, just three days ago, that Atlanta would have been a prime team to open the season with three straight losses.

So, yes, the Falcons have new hope. They have new optimism. But perhaps unlike years past, we're not looking at a team that will die by winter.

Maybe this time, the hope was warranted.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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