The Atlanta Falcons have been one of the more erratic teams in 2011. Coming off a 13-3 season in 2010 where the Falcons locked down the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, only to get upset by eventual champion Green Bay, they have spent the better part of the 2011 season trying to dig themselves out of an early hole.
The Falcons didn't get above .500 until their seventh game of the year and needed just six games to match their loss total from the previous year. But, the team has won four of its last five and is starting to look a lot more like the team that cruised to a division title and first-round playoff bye than a team destined to be hovering around .500.
The Falcons have been unpredictable in their level of play from week to week, but have been very predictable in the outcome of their games. They beat the teams they should and struggle against the matchups they should lose. Through 10 games, Atlanta has six wins – at home vs. Philadelphia, Carolina and Tennessee and on the road against Seattle, Detroit and Indianapolis. On the flip side, their four losses have come at Chicago and Tampa Bay and at home vs. Green Bay and New Orleans. They have yet to lose to a team that they have been favored to beat and routinely dispatch the teams in which they come into the game as a favorite. If any team has gone by the book, it's Atlanta, which doesn't bode well for the Vikings since the Falcons are prohibitive favorites to win Sunday.
For the last three years, Atlanta's rise to respectability has been done more on the legs of running back Michael Turner than the arm of Matt Ryan. Ryan has been a strong game manager as he has matured, earning the nickname "Matty Ice" for his calm, cool demeanor in the pocket. But it has been Turner that has been the offensive bread and butter.
In his first three seasons with Atlanta, he played in 43 games, rushing 888 times for 3,941 yards and 39 touchdowns – an average of 21 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown per game. In an era of running back diversification, Turner has been a throwback to the old-school days of pounding the ball on the ground.
However, the Falcons have invested heavily in the passing game over the last two years to give Ryan the weapons he needs to move to the next step in his maturation as a quarterback. The team has had veteran Roddy White as its centerpiece of the receiving game for years. But, prior to the 2010 season, the Falcons traded a second-round pick for Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. He has given them a deadly red zone threat and has seven of the team's 15 touchdown receptions. Seeing how pleased the team was giving up unproven draft picks for talent, they went "all in" on draft weekend, shipping off a draft bonanza to move up to the fifth spot to take wide receiver Julio Jones. A speedy deep threat, Jones has battled injuries, but is averaging almost 17 yards per reception. Veteran Harry Douglas has developed into a very good slot receiver who has become a poor man's Percy Harvin. While the passing game hasn't kept up with the frenetic pace of passing league-wide this season, they're catching up in a hurry.
The Falcons defense has been a work in progress that struggled early, but has come on as of late. In their first five games, the Falcons were allowing more than 26 points per game. In their last five, they have allowed less than 17 points a game, as they have tightened up a lot of things and become much more cohesive.
The bookends of the defense are defensive ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards, two dominant players capable of overwhelming the offensive tackles they're up against. While they haven't produced many sacks – they have combined for just six – both make the type of plays that kill drives and get the ball back into the hands of their offense.
The Falcons have talent at all three levels of the defense. In the middle of the defense, Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon both attack the ball and always seem to be in on tackles, whether plays are run their way or not. In the secondary, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson are two excellent cover cornerbacks with ball skills capable of intercepting passes that are just slightly off target and both are willing to climb the ladder and fight for the ball in the air.
People don't talk about the Falcons when discussing the league's best defenses, but they have consistently worked their way up to becoming the second-best run defense in the league. They don't get a lot of sacks but play sound, knowing their assignments and executing them well.
The Falcons are quietly building up an impressive résumé after a 2-3 start to the 2011 season and things are coming together at just the right time for them to make a serious playoff run. With their next four games coming against either rookie or backup quarterbacks (Minnesota, Houston, Carolina and Jacksonville), the Falcons are fully expecting to be 10-4 when that four-game run is over … and they may be accurate in that projection.
The Falcons are one of the few teams capable of grinding out the ball to eat clock time when they have a lead and airing the ball out effectively when they get in a shootout. The playoffs are likely going to involve the Falcons, so the Vikings will have their work cut out for them in trying to knock them off. Their history over the last two years is that they beat the teams they should beat and, at 2-8, there's no questioning that the Vikings qualify for that status.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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