Bill Shanks

Mack leading Falcons to contender status

Atlanta center Alex Mack (51) and the Falcons travel to Carolina on Saturday.
Atlanta center Alex Mack (51) and the Falcons travel to Carolina on Saturday. AP

There’s a reason the Atlanta Falcons are leading the NFL in points per game. A team can win a lot of games when it scores 33.5 points every week, and the Falcons are making it look easy.

Sure, Matt Ryan deserves credit. Atlanta’s quarterback is in MVP conversation. The Falcons are also eighth in the league in rushing yards per game, so running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are doing well.

Even though he has been hurt the past two weeks, Julio Jones still leads the NFL in receiving yards with 1,253. Despite his absence, the Falcons have plenty of options for Ryan at receiver.

What about the offensive line? Through 14 games, the same five players have started every game. That doesn’t happen often, and it shows the consistency for a line of scrimmage that has been a main reason the offense has been so productive.

In fact, since the start of the 2015 season, the four players who play left tackle (Jake Matthews), left guard (Andy Levitre), right guard (Chris Chester) and right tackle (Ryan Schraeder) have started every game at those positions.

The only difference is at center, where after three years of having a revolving door, Alex Mack has brought stability to that very important position. Mack was signed to a big-money contract last winter, and he has been worth every penny.

It is no coincidence the Falcons had three straight non-winning seasons coming into 2016 at the same time they had five different people play center. It was a mess, and what makes it even worse is for more than a decade the center position had been the most consistent spot on the team.

Todd McClure started all but four games at center for the Falcons between 2001 and 2012. That’s amazing to have one man start that many games at one position during a 12-year span. Then the Falcons unceremoniously released McClure, forcing him into retirement. McClure had just helped get the Falcons all the way to the NFC championship game.

It was a colossal mistake. During the next three years, Mike Person (14 games), Peter Konz (12), Joe Hawley (11), James Stone (10) and Gino Gradkowski made starts at center.

Atlanta’s front office grew tired of trying to develop a player for center, so it spent a ton of money to sign Mack, who was a three-time Pro Bowler in his seven years with the Cleveland Browns.

The statistical website Pro Football Focus wrote last week that Mack has graded “out among the top-three at the (center) position this season.” That’s exactly what the Falcons needed.

We all know the line of scrimmage is a key ingredient for any championship team. The Falcons had to fix the center position, and for this team to blossom on offense at the same time Mack joined the roster proves the old theory once again.

It’s one of the reasons the Falcons might have a chance in January. It’ll likely come down to which teams the Falcons match up with, but any defensive line is going to be challenged by the Atlanta offensive line’s ability to protect Ryan in the pocket.

So be grateful the Falcons have Ryan, Freeman, Jones and company. But don’t lose sight of the tremendous contribution of Mack and his fellow offensive linemen. It’s made the Falcons a legit contender to do damage in the NFL playoffs.

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