GLS Preview: Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons have registered three winning seasons since making Matt Ryan their franchise quarterback in 2008, and yet the team is still awaiting its first playoff victory of the Ryan era.

They were supposed to get that monkey off their back in 2010. They beat the defending champion Saints on the road, dominated everyone at home, and finished the fifth-most points scored, the fifth-least points allowed, the third-best turnover differential and the second-best record in football.

But then they were crushed 48-21 by the Packers in the NFC playoffs. It was a shocking home defeat considering that the Falcons had only lost four games at the Georgia Dome since Ryan began his career in ’08.

Two problems the Falcons had in that demoralizing loss: 1) they had just two plays that went for more than 12 yards, and 2) they weren’t able to get enough pressure to slow down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense.

They’ve addressed both issues in the offseason. Top pick Julio Jones should add explosiveness and open up the offense, while free agent acquisition Ray Edwards should help bolster the pass rush and lighten the load on the secondary.

On paper, one of the best teams of the 2010 regular season is significantly better in 2011.

2010 in a nutshell: They lose only one regular-season game after Week 6, edge the defending champion Saints to win the NFC South and grab the top spot in the conference. But then they run into the Packers in the divisional playoffs and their season is pretty much over by halftime.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. The offense will make more big plays: Only Carolina had fewer completions of 20 yards or more in 2010, but Jones will open things up for Ryan and provide a distraction for opposing defenses, easing things up on Roddy White and Harry Douglas. Michael Turner rushed for 1,300 yards despite being ailed by a groin injury last year, but he’s healthy in 2011 and will be supported by flashy rookie Jacquizz Rodgers. The only semi-significant loss on offense is right guard Harvey Dahl, who left as a free agent. But the team re-signed fellow o-linemen Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock and it looks as though they feel Garrett Reynolds can do a fine job replacing Dahl. There’s really no reason to believe the offense won’t take a step forward this year.

2. The defense will be much better: They were 22nd against the pass last year, but that had a lot to do with the pass rush. The Falcons mustered only 31 sacks, and 13 of them came from the aging John Abraham. Edwards will free up Abraham while adding double-digit sack numbers himself. If youngsters Peria Jerry and Sean Weatherspoon can show signs of improvement, the pass rush will be significantly more effective this season. The secondary is already stellar with Pro Bowl-caliber corners Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes and heavy hitter William Moore. They’ll benefit greatly from a fiercer front seven.

3. They’ll finally win a playoff game: Maybe even two! Ryan is entering his prime and he’s finally about to receive the support necessary for a Super Bowl run. The pieces are in place.

The final word(s): They’ve become the best team in the NFC South. Atlanta should win 12 games and capture the division crown once again. They’ll be jockeying with Green Bay and Philly for a spot in the Super Bowl.