Through the first third of the season the Atlanta Falcons are tied for first place in the NFC South with a 3-3 record. The Falcons have vastly overachieved both offensively and defensively. With this overachievement comes the question, are the Falcons contenders or pretenders?
Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have turned this team around in just two seasons. Coming into this season, Smith and the Falcons adopted this underdog, Us Vs the World mentality. In every game this season the Falcons have been the underdog, and they’ve used this dog mentality every week.
Coming off an 0-2 start, the Falcons were written off, Smith was embarrassing himself in press conferences, and the whole team was down. Since then, the Falcons have gone 3-1 and have improved to a .500 record.
While the Falcons are 3-3, they could easily be 4-2, 5-1, and possibly even 6-0. Every game with the exception of Sunday’s 28-14 win over the San Francisco 49ers has been decided by one score or less.
The offense has been the most surprising part of the season so far. Led by the dual-threat nature of Marcus Mariota, the rushing ability of Cordarrelle Patterson, Caleb Huntley, and Tyler Allgeier, and the pass catching of Drake London, Kyle Pitts and company, this offense has been able to drive on opponents and can consistently put up points.
As a unit they average 324.3 yards per game; 159.2 passing yards per game and 165.2 rushing yards per game, good for eighth in the NFL.
The rushing game has been beautiful this season. The past few weeks, the Falcons have faced the Buccaneers and the 49ers, two of the top run defenses, and were able to run the ball very effectively. Atlanta has rushed for 150 yards or more in every game this season except their 31-27 loss to the LA Rams in Week 2.
If the Falcons can continue to run the ball this well, it’ll open up everything else for this offense. Mariota needs to clean up some mistakes and be able to pass the ball more effectively. If he can do this, this offense will be even more dangerous.
The defense, although it hasn’t put up the best numbers, hasn’t been terrible. Led by the talented secondary of A.J. Terrell, Casey Hayward, and Richie Grant, the run stopping and pass rushing of Grady Jarrett, Arnold Ebiketie, and Ta’Quon Graham, and the gap filling and run stopping of linebacker Mykal Walker, Rashaan Evans, and Troy Anderson, this unit has been a bend but don’t break type of unit.
As a unit, they give up 385.2 yards of total offense a game; 281.2 passing yards per game and 104 rushing yards per game. The pass rush has improved over last season, but there is still room to get better.
While the numbers may not show it, this defense has vastly improved this season. Week 1, they held the Saints to 10 points through three quarters. Week 2, they held the Rams to 10 points in the second half. Week 3, they held the Seahawks to 3 points in the second half. Week 4, they held the Browns to 10 points in the second half. Week 5, they held the Bucs to eight points in the second half. And this past week, they shut out the 49ers in the second half.
As you can see, the numbers don’t show everything this defense has done. If the pass rush can improve and the Falcons can continue to replicate the defensive performances they’ve been having, this defense is going to be elite.
Looking at the schedule for the rest of the season, it’s not crazy to say the Falcons can make the playoffs. They have favorable matchups against the Panthers (twice), Commanders, Bears, and Steelers. Also most of the tough matchups the Falcons still have to face such as the Bucs, Chargers, Cardinals, and Saints are all at home.
Overall, I believe this Falcons team is a playoff contender. Smith is 9-5 in one-score games with the Falcons. With the vast improvements on the offensive and defensive side, this Falcons team has been and should be able to compete for a playoff spot in the NFC.