National sports media missing an obvious favorite

January 2, 2013 

I’m a fan of the Atlanta Falcons, so my judgement is at times clouded by my passion. But I’m also a sportswriter. Any credibility I have is cobbled together in part by an ability to distinguish what is from what I want to be.

These dual influences feed my frustration with those in the national media who hold the Falcons in such low regard. They’re not seeing what I consider to be as obvious as Troy Aikman’s color commentary: that Atlanta is the best team in the NFC and is the conference’s clear favorite to earn a Super Bowl berth.

The hate is thinly veiled as analysis. Yes, Atlanta is 0-3 in playoff games during four years under the Mike Smith (head coach), Matt Ryan (quarterback), Thomas Dimitroff (general manager) regime. It’s also true the team’s performances in those games got progressively worse. One commentator even used the word “choke.” Unless and until the Falcons win in the postseason, the argument goes, Atlanta will continue to be irrelevant.

That’s ham. The Falcons are relevant for the teams they helped eliminate from playoff contention. The Falcons are relevant for the circumstances (Mike Vick, Bobby Petrino) from which they’ve rebounded. Most important, the Falcons are relevant for the fact they “just win, baby.”

Entering Sunday’s season finale with Tampa Bay, Atlanta boasted a regular season record of 56-23 in the Smith years. Only New England has been better over the past five years. Atlanta, New England and Baltimore are the only three franchises that have now posted five consecutive winning season.

Not only did the Birds win the NFC South for the second time in three years, they won the NFC East and AFC West, as well -- going a combined 8-0 against opponents from those divisions.

Old prejudices die hard. Even with this run of success, the Atlanta franchise endures the fourth-worst all-time winning percentage among active franchises. At first blush, one can forgive the nation its skepticism about Atlanta’s rise to prominence. But that’s lazy. Let’s look at some numbers.

• Atlanta is one of only two NFL teams ranked in the top five in both team offense and defense. The other is Denver -- a team the Falcons beat.

• Atlanta’s defense yields an average of 4.8 yards per attempt. That ranked worst among teams headed for the playoffs as of Friday. The NFL is a passing league now, however, and the Falcons defend the pass. They’re among only a few teams with more interceptions than touchdown passes allowed.

• Speaking of passing, the Falcons have Ryan, who is having his best season ever in terms of yards, touchdowns and completion percentage. That’s not surprising because he does it every year. He keeps getting better. And don’t sleep on Ryan’s running ability. He hasn’t done it yet this year, but expect a bootleg touchdown run in the playoffs.

• Atlanta is the least-penalized team in the league.

• Atlanta has the sixth-best turnover margin in the league

Statistics aside, the Falcons pass the eyeball test. They’ve won going away and they’ve won coming from behind. They’re solid on offense, defense and special teams and they are well-coached. They will be your NFC conference champion.

NOTE: Readers suggested a pair of additions to my list of the 10 most significant local sports events of 2012. Northside graduate and Georgia Southern softball pitcher Sarah Purvis earned SoCon Player of the Year honors after winning 23 games in the circle. Also, the competitive cheerleading teams from Houston County High School and Veterans High School won state championships in their respective classifications.

Contact Chris Deighan at cdeighan@cox.net.

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