On January 30th, 2000, a historically great offense won the Super Bowl at the Georgia Dome. The “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams dominated on offense all season, but it was their defense that won the big game against the Titans.
16 years later with the same building getting set to close down, a similar scenario presents itself. The Falcons can’t stop scoring, but will their defense be able to hold down the fort long enough to end this story the same way the Rams did?
How They Got Here
Matt Ryan proclaimed in the offseason the Falcons would average 30 points a game this season. People scoffed. Matt didn’t blink. After a 31-24 loss to the Buccaneers week one, the Falcons reeled off four straight wins. The highlight was a 48-33 win over Carolina, a game that saw Julio Jones reel off 300 receiving yards.
Atlanta saw their progress halted a little bit with a 26-24 loss to their divisional round opponents Seattle, and then an inexcusable overtime loss to the Chargers. From that point on it was smooth sailing. The Falcons finished the season 7-2 in the final nine games, averaging 34.5 points a game during that stretch. A 38-32 win over New Orleans in week 17 was enough to finish the season 11-5, and seal a first-round bye.
Why They Can Win It
Who is going to stop their offense? Matt Ryan should be the MVP this season, and he has 11 different players with at least one touchdown this season around him. Julio Jones is the best wide receiver in the NFL, and the two headed monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman might be the best running back duo in the league. This team has the potential to score every time they touch the football.
The route to Houston looks pretty clear. In week six, the Seahawks beat the Falcons 26-24 on a controversial no call on what could have been pass interference on Richard Sherman against Julio Jones. Despite the result, the Falcons outplayed Seattle with Earl Thomas at CenturyLink Field. The rematch is in Atlanta, and Thomas is not playing.
From there they would be two wins from the Lombardi, and with this offense, anything is possible.
Why They Can’t Win
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This defense is horrific.
NFL sack champion Vic Beasley finished with 15.5 sacks, but the rest of the team ended with 18.5, less than last season’s 19. The pass rush is a one man wrecking crew, and if you take that one man out, the pressure on the quarterback will be non-existent.
Number one cornerback Desmond Trufant is on IR for the rest of the season, which means pass interference machine Robert Alford will get the matchup against top targets. All of the teams in the way on the NFC side pose huge problems to their defense. If they beat Seattle Aaron Rodgers up against this secondary is terrifying, but the prospect of Ezekiel Elliot against this run defense isn’t much nicer.
The Falcons will only go as far as their defense will take them.
X-Factor: Taylor Gabriel
Gabriel is a gadget receiver, but when he is used in the right way he is a weapon of mass destruction. The speedster will be Atlanta’s #3 receiver, and the slot role suits him perfectly. He is a Tyreek Hill type of game breaker, where even just one touch can change the game. Matt Ryan loves to look for him in open space on bubble screens, wheel routes, and other simple concepts where he can use his speed.
This team is the biggest wild card left in the playoffs. They have Super Bowl potential, but they also could crash out against Seattle on Saturday. I am going to cautiously predict an NFC Championship Game exit. I think they can beat Seattle at home, but anything more than that would be a stretch given who the opponent would be on championship Sunday.