Last May when the Atlanta Hawks lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, we saw a state team get close to a chance at a title.
But then when Cleveland moved on and played in the NBA Finals against Golden State, we were able to see just how far away the Hawks actually are from being a championship team. They were really good last season, a 60-win team. The NBA Finals showed, however, the Hawks were simply not good enough.
Last October’s World Series showed us just how far away the Braves are from being back in that conversation as a championship-caliber team. But we did see, with the blueprint of the two World Series teams, that the Braves are going about their rebuilding project the right way.
The Royals won the World Series with a great bullpen and tremendous team chemistry. The Mets made it mainly due to a great starting rotation. The Braves will need all of that if they are to get back to the Fall Classic.
It’s always easy to see how far away your team is when watching the best teams play in the postseason. We will get that chance Sunday with the NFL conference championship games to see just how far the Falcons are from being where they were just three years ago.
The team easiest to compare Atlanta to will be the Carolina Panthers, the favorite in the NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals. The Panthers are in the Falcons’ division, and they have won the NFC South three seasons in a row.
So why are the Panthers on the cusp of the Super Bowl? It’s really all about their quarterback. Like it or not, Cam Newton had a remarkable year and could be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. To think Newton, in only his fifth NFL season, has passed eight-year veteran Matt Ryan as one of the league’s best quarterbacks is probably difficult for most Atlanta fans to accept.
Ryan is obviously at a crossroads in his career. He struggled this season in the new system of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. If Ryan’s troubles continue in 2016, the Falcons may be looking for a new quarterback sooner than we think.
Meanwhile, Newton’s dual-threat ability has created a difficult offense to stop. It’s more potent than the Matt Ryan-to-Julio Jones combo that Atlanta has on offense. And Newton’s emergence as a star has him primed to be considered better than Ryan.
Teams win championships with quarterbacks in the NFL. Sure, Arizona may win with Carson Palmer, the least-heralded of the four signal-callers who will play Sunday. But look at the AFC game. New England’s Tom Brady and Denver’s Peyton Manning are in once again.
Ryan is the key to Atlanta getting back to being an elite team. Sure, Atlanta’s defense is important and there were strides made in head coach Dan Quinn’s first year. But Ryan has to be a champion for his team to have another chance at winning it all.
If Carolina wins the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks it will leave the Falcons as the only team from the NFC South that hasn’t won a championship. And it will also put even more pressure on Atlanta to get to a championship level. But we will likely see Sunday how far away they are from that when the Panthers try to win the NFC.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.