Playoff sleeper team? NFL personnel men hyping Atlanta Falcons

Which wild-card team has the best shot to pull off an upset this weekend?

I asked that question to several high-ranking personnel men with NFL franchises that don't play in the opening round of the playoffs, and all of them mentioned the same team, echoing sentiment I've heard over the past month:

Watch out for the Atlanta Falcons.

Yes, the Los Angeles Rams are deserving favorites on their home field at the Coliseum, with MVP candidate Todd Gurley driving the NFL's top-ranked scoring offense and a defense that's among the league leaders in sacks and takeaways. Not all the personnel men I spoke to really buy an upset in any game this weekend. But with each AFC matchups tilting heavily toward the home team and the New Orleans Saints already having swept the Carolina Panthers in the regular season, Atlanta might have as good a shot as anyone at shaking things up.

Here's how one NFC executive explained the Falcons' hopes: "If they can stop the run -- which is a big if -- I think they can score. Both teams have some firepower. They're both fast on defense. I think it's pretty evenly matched. The Falcons are not running on all cylinders on offense like they were last year, but the Rams are 28th in rush defense, so they're vulnerable."

The Falcons still have two solid backs, plus a game-changing receiver in Julio Jones. Oh, and quarterback Matt Ryan, who, coach Dan Quinn told me a couple weeks ago, is showing flashes of his MVP self of 2016, even if the stats don't reflect it. On defense, they're loaded with ascending talent and have been productive in just about every key category except creating turnovers.

An NFC personnel director was more blunt in why he thinks the Rams might be the favorites to go down: "Because I still don't believe in (Jared) Goff."

In the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2004, the young Rams have plenty to prove -- and the Falcons do, too. Atlanta didn't clinch its playoff spot until a Week 17 win over Carolina and will keep hearing 28-3 jokes until it makes another playoff run to erase the memory of that Super Bowl collapse. Our NFL Research team's 10-Factor Playoff Model, analyzing over 100 metrics from the past 15 seasons of playoff teams, ranked Atlanta ahead of only the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills in this year's playoff field. (The Rams ranked sixth.)

But think about this: The Falcons are the No. 6 seed in the NFC. So, if they can knock off the Rams, they'd travel to Philadelphia, where the Eagles are trying to find their footing with Nick Foles at quarterback in place of injured Carson Wentz. Getting even further ahead of ourselves, the Falcons split the season series with two teams they could see in the NFC title game (Carolina and New Orleans) and played the Minnesota Vikings tough defensively in a 14-9 loss Dec. 3.

There are more daunting paths to the Super Bowl, that's for sure. But none of that matters if the Falcons can't escape from L.A.

The Five Ws for Wild Card Weekend

Ever wish you had the access of a highly connected NFL reporter? Well, now you do! Sort of. Submit your questions on Twitter using the hashtag #AskedAndAnswered. @TomPelissero will select the best submissions and work to find an answer.

WHO is the favorite to land the Colts' head-coaching job? Still Dave Toub? (submitted by @costaphilipe) I've seen this speculation, which stems from Toub's background with Colts GM Chris Ballard in Kansas City and Chicago. Toub is highly respected and had two interviews last year. But I wrote here in October that a person who knows Ballard said a different Chiefs assistant (OC Matt Nagy) will be high, if not first, on the Colts' list. And don't overlook that Patriots OC Josh McDaniels' first interview was with the Colts on Wednesday night. McDaniels knows (and has a good relationship with) Ballard -- a critical factor for McDaniels, the most coveted candidate in this cycle, as he decides where to take his second shot as a head coach. If McDaniels wants the job, it might be his. (No decisions are expected through at least this weekend; one possible wild card is the Titans ousting Mike Mularkey, with McDaniels' former Patriots colleague Jon Robinson the GM in Tennessee.) The Colts' initial round of requests included: McDaniels, Nagy, Texans DC Mike Vrabel, Panthers DC Steve Wilks and Seahawks DC Kris Richard. That doesn't mean Toub is out; he can't interview until next week anyway because Kansas City plays a wild-card game. But no signs he has the inside track.

WHAT are the chances the Giants would take Saquon Barkley over a quarterback with the No. 2 pick? (submitted by @nysmitties918) Way too early to say, even after USC's Sam Darnold and UCLA's Josh Rosen declared for the draft Wednesday night. There's a lot of homework to do on both players, for very different reasons, as well as Wyoming's Josh Allen and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, among others. I've written before that scouts see Barkley on a similar level to Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette, who went No. 4 overall in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, respectively. New Giants GM Dave Gettleman just took Christian McCaffrey at No. 8 overall last year, so there's no philosophical opposition there to taking a running back high. But the Panthers had Cam Newton in his prime; the Giants have Eli Manning, who is a descending player at age 37. Finding Manning's successor was No. 1 on opposing executives' to-do list for fixing the Giants. So, if Gettleman and his yet-to-be-named coach think Darnold, Rosen or someone else is a franchise QB, that has to factor heavily into their approach.

WHEN does the Marvin Lewis era come to an end in Cincinnati? Days before the Bengals ended a disappointing 7-9 season by knocking the rival Ravens out of the playoffs, one player made a prescient prediction that I relayed on NFL Network: If Lewis told owner Mike Brown he wanted to come back in 2018, Brown would let him, even after reports of Lewis' imminent departure and an expiring contract. Brown is patient and loyal and doesn't like change. Lewis turned around the program when he arrived back in 2003 and has won a lot of games, albeit none in the playoffs. Plus, Lewis has been content to let his contract expire multiple times now and stick around on one- and two-year extensions. (The deal he signed Tuesday runs through 2019.) In a league of fleeting job security, which outside candidate would offer the Bengals similar flexibility? All of which is a long way of saying that Lewis, 59, still seems to have the juice to answer this question himself ... and we may well be asking it again in two years.

WHERE do the Packers find their next GM? Will the battle between Russ Ball, Eliot Wolf and Brian Gutekunst be an internal knife fight? (submitted by @RyanWalt525) Many people I've spoken to in the NFL believe the use of a search firm to assist in the process is just the Packers' way of showing they did a thorough search before promoting a preordained successor to Ted Thompson -- probably Ball, whose background is on the salary cap and administrative side. But the Packers have begun reaching out to potential candidates with other teams, sources say, and indications are they at least intend to conduct more interviews before finalizing a move. One high-ranking scout, Alonzo Highsmith, already left for Cleveland. If Wolf and Gutekunst get passed over for GM, what's stopping them from following suit when their contracts expire, if not sooner?

WHY would the Vikings allow Pat Shurmur to interview before they start a significant playoff run? (submitted by @AndyHomie218) These requests happen every year for teams with byes -- one of the prices of success. Many coaches do advance work on their presentations in the offseason to limit prep time if interview opportunities arise. Once initial game plans are set for multiple possible playoff opponents, there's only so much left to do, hence why many of these interviews occur between Wednesday and Friday. Do you really want to be the one team that denies permission until the season is over? A second interview can't occur until you're out or on another bye week before the Super Bowl. No surprise Shurmur is among the leaders in interview slips, along with Wilks, McDaniels and Patriots DC Matt Patricia. All have been on the radar as top candidates for months. Vrabel and Eagles QB coach John DeFilippo -- two other members of our rising assistants list, along with Nagy, Patricia and Richard -- have multiple requests in, too, as does Eagles DC Jim Schwartz.

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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