The 2016 Falcons started 3-1 and wound up … well, you know where. The 2017 Falcons are 3-1 and look like the 2016 Falcons, which isn’t at all a terrible thing. Difference is, when you wind up where last year’s team wound up, you’re held to a higher standard. After games when you don’t look Super, we all wonder, “Why not?”
These Falcons have looked Super once – against Green Bay in Week 2. That’s the only game that couldn’t have gone the other way. If you’re an optimist, you’re saying 3-1 could easily be 4-0. If you’re a pessimist – and if you’re a Falcons fan, you probably are – you’re thinking they could be 1-3. Either way you’d be right, which says more about the NFL than it does these Falcons.
The NFL is not college football. There’s no Alabama among the pro set. Nobody wins big every given Sunday/Monday/Thursday. Every road game is a potential trap, and even home games aren’t gimmes. (To wit: Bills 23, Falcons 17.) Record-wise, the Falcons are fine. Not that everything in this world revolves around my predictions, but I had them at 3-1, albeit with the loss coming in Detroit. I also had them finishing 12-4, which would more than suffice.
Back to that part about these Falcons looking much like last year’s team: Among some folks, that won’t be cause for jubilation. There was hope that the 2017 assemblage would be Falcons 2.0 – a sleeker and swifter version of a team that should have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. They looked great in the first half against Green Bay and the first quarter against Detroit, but those are the only times. They had to hang on against the Bears and Lions; they needed a comeback, which didn’t quite materialize, against Buffalo.
I could recite a bunch of year-over-year numbers, but here’s all you need to know: The offense isn’t quite as irresistible as in 2016, while the defense is indeed much better. The Falcons are averaging 26 points, down by a touchdown per game off last season’s massive yield. Opponents are averaging 22.3 points, which is down by a field goal. The Falcons are fourth in total offense, down from last year’s second, but 13th in total defense, much better than last year’s 25th.
Football-wise, that was always going to be the story of this season: Can a better defense offset the loss of Kyle Shanahan? (Here we stipulate that, even had the offensive coordinator returned, the Falcons weren’t likely to be any better at moving and scoring than they were, last year having been a harmonic convergence.) Early returns have been encouraging. You can go a long way with a top-five offense and an almost-top-10 defense, which is what – yes, it’s a small sample size – the Falcons have.
In Sunday’s loss, the offense – by then minus Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu – managed two touchdowns. It turned the ball over three times in four second-half possessions. And yet: With three minutes left, the Falcons had the ball and a chance to win. A year ago, the offense had to keep scoring. This year, the defense is capable of holding up its end. In the grand scheme, that’s a good sign.
The offense under Steve Sarkisian hasn’t approached last year’s pinball wizardry, but it hasn’t been anywhere close to awful. Jones hasn’t scored a touchdown, which will surely change. (If it doesn’t, somebody needs to be fired.) Matt Ryan’s passer rating places him 22nd among qualifying quarterbacks, but that’s largely a function of five interceptions, three of which were tipped. ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating has him fourth, which is more like it.
The Falcons show no signs of needing to win games 13-10. Against Buffalo, 24 points would have carried the day. I haven’t found anything about this team I don’t like -- hey, give me time – except that it’s getting hurt, which boils down to luck, or the absence thereof. Last year’s Falcons lost Desmond Trufant in early November and Jones for two December games, and that was it until Alex Mack broke his leg in the NFC title game. (He played in the Super Bowl anyway.)
With the NFL having a hard cap and free agency, there’s not much difference in talent. (Unless you’re the Browns. Then there is.) With nearly every Super Bowl team, we can say – after the fact – that it stayed reasonably healthy. With the injuries suffered by Ryan Schraeder, Vic Beasley Jr., Ricardo Allen and now Jones and Sanu, the Falcons already have been dinged in a way they weren’t last season. The good news: All of the above should return soon.
If the Falcons haven’t dazzled us yet – and in the main, they haven’t – that doesn’t mean they won’t make the playoffs. They should. They’re still good, just in a different way. To say, “This doesn’t look like a Super Bowl team” in early October means nothing. They’re 3-1, same as they were a year ago, and that team ended up … well, you know where.