Why the Falcons are the Packers’ biggest NFC rival
There is no debating that the Green Bay Packers are the best team in the NFC, possibly even the NFL. But they are by no means guaranteed the first seed come playoff time, and their biggest rival for this spot might surprise some of you. It’s not the Seahawks or the Cardinals, but the Atlanta Falcons.
Dan Quinn’s rejuvenated Falcons are flying high at 4-0, the same record as the Packers, and need to be taken seriously in the hunt for a playoff bye in January. Are they the best team? No. Can they get the best record in the NFC? Absolutely. Here’s why.
The schedule is easy
Atlanta may have holes on its roster, but just look at the teams they play this year. Before hitting the bye in Week 10, there is a realistic shot the Falcons are 9-0. The next five? Washington at home, at New Orleans, at Tennessee, Tampa Bay at home, at San Francisco. None of those are daunting and all must be considered ‘winnable’.
After the bye, the Buccaneers and Saints feature again, and there is also a trip to Florida to take on the Jaguars. The way each of these opponents look right now, it’s hard to see the Falcons losing many games.
Other NFC rivals are struggling
Outside of the Packers, who are the contenders for the top seed? The Seahawks? Seattle sits at 2-2 with a trip to Cincinnati this week. A loss there and an Atlanta win over Washington would put them three games back. The Seahawks are far from their best and have to play the Cardinals twice, the Rams again and face tough games with the Vikings and Steelers.
The Cardinals? Similarly, their schedule is daunting. Two games with the Seahawks, one with the Packers and road trips to the Steelers and Rams ensure the road to the top seed is a brutal one for Bruce Arians and his team.
The injury bug has wiped out the Cowboys’ hopes of the top seed, and the Eagles so far have been one of the NFL’s biggest underachievers. It’s hard to see any of these teams having the consistency to put up the 12 or 13 wins it will likely take to finish ahead of the Pack.
Perhaps one of the biggest threats actually comes within the division—the Carolina Panthers. But Cam Newton can only carry the team so far, and upcoming games against Seattle and Green Bay could set them back.
These Falcons are underrated
Oct 4, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) celebrates his touchdown run with quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in the first quarter of their game against the Houston Texans at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
More importantly than every point I’ve made is that these Falcons are underrated. It’s hard to trust a team that’s fielded an embarrassment of a defense of late and combined for just ten wins in the past two years, but they have come a long way.
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Entering the season, what were the Falcons’ biggest concerns? The run game?
Devonta Freeman currently leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns with seven, and the team is currently ranked 14th in rushing offense. With a passing game ranked sixth in the NFL, the ground game has been the perfect complement. Freeman has been on fire, and there is plenty of potential in rookie Tevin Coleman, who is recovering from a fractured rib.
How about the offensive line? Jake Matthews has bounced back from a disappointing rookie campaign and the whole line has performed at a high level. Kyle Shanahan has worked wonders on this offense, and the o-line is top of the Pro Football Focus rankings entering Week 5. How about that for a turnaround?
The defense? While there are still some concerns in pass defense, the pass rush has improved and we are seeing continued improvements each week. Stopping the run is a different story altogether. Atlanta has been dominant, allowing an average of just 85.3 yards per game, good for fifth in the NFL.
The Packers are the clear favorites to win the NFC, but don’t sleep on these Falcons. With a dominant, balanced offense, an improving defense and an easy schedule, the top seed is not beyond Quinn’s team.