Falcons Flying High
Written by: Quintin Bentley Crevling
The Atlanta Falcons higher power offense has soared their way to the top of the NFC South.
This division has the most high profile quarterbacks and they showed their value with Atlanta and New Orleans finishing first and second in scoring offense respectively.
The season was filled with high scoring shoot outs as every defense in the division allowed more points than the league average. The division recorded the most points scored this season with an average of 52 points a game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers narrowly missed the playoffs on an inspired late season push that fell just shy of the playoffs.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 5,000 yards, but their complete lack of defense left them with a third 7-9 season in a row.
The division is home to the largest win/loss drop off from last season. The Carolina Panthers went from a league best 15-1 last season to a dismal 6-10 becoming the bottom feeder of the division.
The division champion Atlanta Falcons were lead by MVP candidate Matt Ryan who had the best year of his career throwing for 4,944 yards 38 touchdowns and 7 interceptions for a well rounded 117.1 passer rating.
Ryan had plenty of help from All-Pro Receiver Julio Jones who caught 83 passes for 1409 yards and 6 touchdowns. Matt Ryan set an NFL record for touchdown passes to different receivers, connecting with 13 players for touchdowns.
The Falcons were fortunate to have one of the easiest schedules in the league finishing the season with a 6-1 stretch after the bye week, propelling them into the postseason.
The defense started four rookies including first round draft pick Keanu Neal (safety) and second round pick Deion Jones (linebacker). The rookies made a smooth transition to the pace of the NFL and gained valuable experience playing against the league’s top offenses.
The Falcons won the division finishing at second place in the NFC and I would expect their stock to rise in the future as their defense finds their footing under defensive minded head coach Dan Quinn.
The Buccaneers season jumped off to a rough start when Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin injured his hamstring in the beginning of the second game, leaving him sidelined for the following six weeks.
The offense struggled to run the ball in the games that Martin was sidelined, effectively turning a prolific offense into a one dimensional pass only team. In this span, Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans averaged nearly 14 targets per game compared to 8.5 throughout the rest of the season.
The inability to move the ball on offense left the defense stranded on the field which resulted in them giving up an average of 29 points a game.The Buccaneers depleted run game and exhausted defense lead them to a 3-5 record in the first half of the season.
After a 43-28 schalacking from the Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs were at a pivotal crossroad between elimination from the playoffs and stepping up to the challenge and running the table. They went on to win five consecutive games beating the Chiefs in Kansas City and dominating the Seattle Seahawks at home.
The defense that was among the worst in the league in the first half of the season averaged just over 17 points a game in the second half.
Unfortunately the Bucs lost two late season games to the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints, eliminating them from playoff contention.
This team has a high ceiling if Doug Martin has a strong comeback next season and they add another weapon to their passing game.
The hallmark of the Saints season was inconsistency as they failed to win more than two games in a row all year.
The season was an offensive war of attrition as the Saints, lead by future hall of famer Drew Brees, had the second highest scoring offense and the second worst defense in points allowed per game.
Brees became the first player in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards five times throughout his career. His leading man was rookie Michael Thomas who posted one of the best seasons ever for a rookie receiver, recording 92 receptions for 1,137 yards and 9 touchdowns.
There has been a lot of speculation that the Saints are interested in trading head coach Sean Payton this offseason to the Indianapolis Colts. If the Saints retain Payton and invest a few high draft picks on defense I see no reason they can’t return to dominance.
Reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton failed to meet the expectations for a team that was 15-1 a season ago.
Newton had the worst year of his career: throwing for 3,509 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. Panthers receivers were unable to create separation this season as only tight end Greg Olsen was able to record 1,000 yards.
Former first round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin struggled all season after returning from an ACL injury, only recording five games with more than five receptions.
The team had a precipitous drop off in pass defense this year after inexplicably not resigning All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, effectively dropping them from 8th to 29th in passing yards allowed.
The true low point in the season came in week 11 when All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly choked back tears as he returned to consciousness after a nasty hit that left him with a concussion. The former defensive player of the year didn’t return for another snap this season and astonishingly still finished the season with the second most tackles on his team with 102, despite missing six games.