NFL

NFL: Nobody Is Talking About This NFC Sleeper Team

Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn

When people talk about the best teams in the NFC, the Rams and the Saints are usually at the top of the list, and it’s always hard to go against an Aaron Rodgers-led Packers team.

But there’s one team in the conference that’s a bit of a sleeper after going 7-9 last season. The Falcons are just a few seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance, and they have an offense that is better than most teams in the NFL.

A disappointing 2018 season for the Falcons

The Falcons had their first sub-.500 season since 2014 last year, but their running game took a hit with an injury to RB Devonta Freeman, which limited him to just two games.

That meant that RB Tevin Coleman was thrust into starting RB duties, and he only managed to run for 800 yards with four touchdowns in 167 rushes.

With a sacrificed ground game, defenses were able to focus more on defending the passing game. WR Julio Jones had a typically strong season, but QB Matt Ryan didn’t have a strong No. 2 in the receiving game behind Jones.

The outlook for 2019

Freeman is going to be back atop the running back depth chart this season, but Coleman is now with the 49ers. RB Ito Smith, who was the team’s second-most-productive rusher last season, will be Freeman’s backup.

In the passing game, Ryan has a strong trio of receivers to throw to with Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley, who had more than 800 receiving yards in his rookie season and could be looking at a 1,000-yard season in 2019.

The Falcons also have TE Austin Hooper, who is one of the NFL’s better pass catchers at the position.

Can an offensive coordinator change make the difference for the Falcons?

Steve Sarkisian was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator for the past couple of seasons, but Dirk Koetter is taking over that role this season. Can he get better production out of the offense?

Jones, Sanu, Ridley and possibly even Hooper all have 1,000-yard potential in the receiving game, but only Jones reached that plateau in 2018. Koetter will have to come up with an offensive game plan to get the best out of that group, as well as Freeman as he comes back from last year’s season-ending surgery.

Koetter spent the last three seasons as the Bucs’ head coach, and their offense wasn’t among the league’s best during that span. He does have experience working with Ryan and Jones, as he was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator from 2012-2014.

What about the Falcon’s defense?

The Falcons gave up 423 points last season, which was in the bottom 10 in the NFL, and it looks like that will be their weakness again this season.

They didn’t make any notable additions on that side of the ball in the offseason, so the Falcons will likely be playing in shootouts this season with a good offense and a questionable defense.

The bright spot on their defense was interceptions, as they finished in the top 10 with 15. It’ll be up to head coach Dan Quinn, who’s also the defensive coordinator, to work with what he has to shore up the defense.

NFC South outlook

The Saints are by far the best team in the NFC South, then it’s a toss-up, but a healthy Falcons team is probably second-best in the division. There are questions surrounding the Panthers and how effective QB Cam Newton will be this season. The Bucs always seem to disappoint, as QB Jameis Winston has yet to really take the next step and become one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL.

The Falcons will probably win eight or nine games, which won’t be enough to unseat the Saints in the division, so the Falcons will have to hope to get a wild card if they want to return to the postseason in 2019.