Falcons could continue 10-year streak of different NFC champs

When the Rams fell to the Patriots in one of the biggest upsets in sports history, Super Bowl XXXVI in February 2002, there remained a certain air of "don't panic" regarding St. Louis and the "Greatest Show on Turf."

After all, the Rams had made two of the past three Super Sundays and had Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt returning. But something happened along the way that derailed the offensive juggernaut.

It's the same something that's affected the past 10 NFC Super Bowl representatives -- injuries (Rams in '02, Eagles in '05), league-wide parity (Panthers in '04), team distractions (Buccaneers in '03), retirements (Cardinals in '09, Giants in '08), mediocre defense (Seahawks in '06), Marshawn Lynch (Saints in '10), no offense (Bears in '07).

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Along with that, the NFC's streak of a different team representing the conference in the Super Bowl for 10 straight years is pretty impressive. So will we have a new franchise representing the NFC come February? There are six candidates -- the Cowboys, Falcons, Lions, 49ers, Redskins and Vikings -- and I consider only two to have a shot.

Give me the Falcons as the most likely franchise to continue the NFC newbie streak.

First, the arguments for Atlanta

» Atlanta was 13-3 in a very competitive NFC South last season, and secured the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

» This a well-coached team, as evidenced by the fact that the Falcons ranked first in penalties called against, kick returns, long scoring drives, total rushes and completions. Oh, and their opponents had the worst field position in the league.

» They've got the best set of triplets in the NFC with quarterback (Matt Ryan), running back (Michael Turner), and wide receiver (Roddy White).

On the flipside

» It's nearly impossible to repeat as the top seed anymore. Therefore, this team must win on the road in the playoffs. Considering they were Clubber Lang'd by the Packers *at home* in the postseason, that's a tall order. And that's if Mike Smith can get his club back there.

» Smith is starting a rookie wideout opposite White, has a new left guard, and age is creeping in at some key spots on the roster, namely Turner, tight end Tony Gonzalez, and pass rusher John Abraham.

» A pretty challenging schedule, including starting with the Bears, Eagles, and Buccaneers in the first three weeks, two of which are on the road.

Outside of Atlanta, the other team with an outside shot to keep the NFC streak alive is Dallas, but many a bump would have to be smoothed over.

Biggest obstacles for 'Boys to make a trip to Indy

» Let's start with offensive line, where the injured Montrae Holland, Phil Costa, or somebody mediocre is penciled in at guard while rookie Tyron Smith is slated at right tackle. Trying to win the NFC East with a makeshift line is a tall order, irrespective of the fact that the Eagles are more loaded than an Alec Baldwin voicemail.

» The second major issue for Dallas is the secondary, where the backup corners were destroyed last week against the Chargers and the safeties have been a weakness since Darren Woodson hung 'em up seven years ago. The Cowboys gave up 57 pass plays of 20-plus yards a year ago (tied for 28th in the NFL), and with Rob Ryan's penchant for sending the house (like he tried early against the Chargers), the back four's deficiencies could be further exploited by the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick, and Drew Brees in the NFC race.

Things in Cowboys' corner

» The Cowboys went 5-3 after Jason Garrett took over as interim coach last season, with the three losses being by a combined seven points.

» If Tony Romo returns to his 2009 form (4,483 yards and 26 touchdowns), and the club can get a little more out of Felix Jones, the offense will be formidable.

» Ryan's presence should motivate a defense that should be able to create pressure, starting with DeMarcus Ware and providing the defensive coordinator gets any consistency from Anthony Spencer.

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