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Falcons Finally Proving to Be Complete Force In NFC Playoff Picture

There’s been no shortage of discussion regarding the success the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed in 2016. No shortage of talk about the New England Patriots as they near a 47th straight AFC East title.

But there’s a team playing south of Boston and east of Dallas that could do just as much damage in the NFL’s second season. A team that has already shown the ability to hang with (and even beat) the NFL’s best on any given Sunday. A team that no one wants any part of in the early rounds of the 2016 playoffs.

In taking the Los Angeles Rams behind the woodshed Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons served notice to the rest of the NFC. There isn’t going to be any late-season collapse this year. And any team that underestimates Atlanta is going to be in for a rude awakening.

The Rams may not have taken the Falcons lightly, but they certainly got the rude awakening, falling 42-14 in a game the Falcons led 42-0.

The final score looks all the more impressive when you consider that the Atlanta offense didn’t play especially well. Playing without superstar wide receiver Julio Jones, Matt Ryan threw for only 237 yards. Tailbacks Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman managed only 42 rushing yards on 14 combined carries.

Of course, that 237 yards included three touchdown passes. With Jones on the shelf with a toe injury, Ryan spread things around, completing passes to eight different receivers. Wideout Taylor Gabriel, who has recently emerged as a home run threat for Ryan, went deep againthis time from 64 yards out.

As Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, that distribution of the football isn’t something Ryan tries to dobut it isn’t an accident, either. Said Ryan:

Honestly, I have no idea how many guys catch the ball until Brian (Cearns of Falcons media relations) tells me before I go to the podium after the game. I dont think about it too much. Its one of those things when the plays come in, its something weve worked on all week as far as where we want to go with the ball against certain coverages, man matchups, whatever, and thats what I try to do and go to the right spot with the ball. When you have good enough players at all of the spots, you stop thinking about it as a quarterback. Thats what Ive been able to do it this year.

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Make no mistake, though. The key to the offensive success in 2016 has been Ryan. Sunday Ryan surpassed the 4,000-yard mark passing for the sixth consecutive season, and the 31-year-old MVP candidate is well on his way to setting career highs across the board.

Matt Ryan 2016 G Comp. Pct. PYPG TD/INT Ratio Rating* QBR* 13 68.3 311.5 ** +23 ** 112.3 ** 85.3 ** * Entering Week 14 ** Career High

However, what makes the Falcons truly dangerous in 2016 isn’t Ryan’s ability to throw a football. Or Jones’ ability to catch one. Or Freeman and Coleman’s ability to move the ball both on the ground and through the air. Chewing up yardage and scoring points aren’t things the Falcons have struggled to do in recent years.

Stopping the other guy from doing it has been another matter altogether. And in 2016 the Falcons are actually doing thatat least sometimes.

Sunday’s win was a window into what the Falcons’ 29th-ranked defense (entering Week 14) is capable of. Yes, it came against one of the NFL’s worst offenses, but the Falcons held the Rams well under Atlanta’s season average in yardage allowed.

And that’s including garbage time when the Falcons were in super-prevent.

More importantly, the Falcons held the Rams to about half what they usually allow on the scoreboard. In fact, the Atlanta defense had as many scores as the Rams offense, with rookie linebacker Deion Jones and edge-rusher Vic Beasley both finding the end zone.

Jones’ interception return for a score was his second this year. But it’s Beasley who has been the real difference-maker for the Atlanta defense. Last year, the Falcons were dead last in the NFL in sacks. The team reached the quarterback only 19 times in 16 games. Opposing quarterbacks could drop back, read the paper, make a sandwich, eat the sandwich and then deliver the football.

This year, through 13 games the entertainment news uganda Falcons have reached the passer 28 times. Beasley has accounted for nearly half (13.5) of those sacks, including three against the Rams Sunday.

Beasley told the Sports XChange (via the Albany Herald) that he feels he’s coming into his own as a player in his second season.

I feel like Im making a lot of strides as a pass rusher and as a run stopper, Beasley said. Just learning from (teammate Dwight) Freeney and executing the game plan the coaches present every week. I go out there and do what I can to help the team get a win.

Given that Beasley’s now tied for the league lead in sacks, not many would argue that point. And he isn’t alone. From Jones and fellow rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell to cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and first-year safety Keanu Neal, the Atlanta defense is better stocked from a talent perspective than it has been in some time.

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Harry How/Getty Images

When that young defense plays to its potential, the Falcons can beat anyone. They can go to Oakland and down the Raiders. Travel to Denver and beat the defending champs. Go to Seattle and come a non-call away from defeating the Seattle Seahawks.

And they can certainly pound one of the NFL’s tomato cans in the Fighting Fishers.

This isn’t to say the Falcons are a lock for a deep playoff run. In 2016, no such team exists on either side of the bracket. That defense needs to play with more consistency. The Falcons need a healthy Jones back terrorizing defenses as soon as humanly possible. And with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers nipping at their heels, there’s no margin for error if the Falcons want to win the NFC South.

How far will the Atlanta Falcons advance in 2016?

But the division’s there for the taking. Next week the Falcons host a San Francisco 49ers team that hasn’t won since Week 1. Atlanta doesn’t play a team with a winning record the rest of the way. They have three weeks to get Jones right and polish up that defense.

This Falcons team has shown no intention of falling apart down the stretch ala last year’s club. Rather than shrink from last week’s devastating loss to the Chiefs, the Falcons responded with one of their most complete efforts of the year.

If the team can build on that and establish some momentum by winning these last three games, more than just the NFC South is in reach. Seattle’s loss at Green Bay puts the No. 2 seed in the NFC in play as well.

The Falcons are in position to do this season what they couldn’t last seasonfinish strong and make the postseason. And while last year’s collapse still hangs over perceptions of the team, those perceptions are being challenged with every win.

Wins that show this Falcons team is dangerous. Wins that show this Falcons team is much more complete. Wins that show this team is more than capable of making noise come January.

Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter: @IDPSharks.


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