Congratulations are in order for the coaches, players and front office of the Atlanta Falcons.
After three years in the wilderness, the Falcons are back in the NFC playoffs. Not only that, the Falcons secured the NFC South title and a first-round bye.
To be one of the four teams drawing a first-round bye on the road to the Super Bowl is the mark of a good season. The Falcons did what they needed to do during the 17-week grind of the regular season, and now it’s time to see which teams will be playing Feb. 5 in Houston.
Much of the credit goes to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. After taking some heat last season for putting in an offense that quarterback Matt Ryan wasn’t quite comfortable with at first, things came around. The pieces fell into place this season, and the Falcons led the league in scoring.
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Sure, Shanahan is topic No. 1 when it comes to head coaching searches in the NFL right now. Rest assured that he will get a bigger, better deal once the season concludes. For now, consider all the talk to be a reward for a job well done.
That said, what lifts good teams to a level of greatness is their performance in the playoffs. And we simply don’t know what the Falcons can do yet with this coaching staff, which will be making its first playoff appearance.
There’s every reason to believe that the Falcons will parlay the offensive success of the regular season into something bigger. Heck, if the seeds hold, an Atlanta-Dallas NFC championship game could set playoff scoring records, considering the Falcons’ passing success and the breakout year that rookie Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is having.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. There are some very scary divisional playoff matchups lurking next week.
Should Seattle beat Detroit on Saturday night, the Falcons will host the Seahawks. Seattle has a veteran squad that has played in two of the past three Super Bowls and has the No. 3 scoring defense in the league. The Seahawks beat the Falcons 26-24 on Oct. 16 in Seattle, with Richard Sherman getting away with what Falcons fans believed was pass interference on the final play.
Can the Falcons win a rematch? Sure, especially since it will be played at the Georgia Dome. But if the offense isn’t clicking, sweating out that one won’t be fun.
If the Lions knock off the Seahawks, then Atlanta gets the New York-Green Bay winner. Both teams have a history of ending Falcons seasons, the Packers doing so in the 2010 playoffs and the Giants doing the same a year later.
A 33-32 victory on Oct. 30 broke the Falcons’ four-game losing streak against the Packers, with an 11-yard Ryan-to-Mohamed Sanu pass in the final minute winning the game. A second matchup likely will produce more high drama, with Aaron Rodgers a quarterback not to be taken lightly.
And if the Giants make it to the division playoff round? They only have the best scoring defense in the NFC, second in the NFL to New England.
So, long story short, any one of the three potential division playoff opponents could cause the Falcons some major headaches.
Fortunately for Falcons fans, the team has shown some spark this season. Will that spark be enough to lift this year’s team to a level of greatness? That’s what we will be watching next week.