The Atlanta Falcons weren’t favored in their first two games, but they are — according to Mike Sando of ESPN Insider — the new favorites to win the NFC South. In the span of six days, just about everything that could have gone right for the local NFL franchise did so.
They beat the Eagles here and the Giants there, twice coming from behind and holding off a final opposing sally. Julio Jones, who re-upped last month for $71.25 million over five seasons, has been so good that he might want to consider holding out until he gets a contract that will pay him his full worth. The rookie Vic Beasley Jr. ranks, according to Jeff Dooley of Pro Football Focus, as the league’s second-best 4-3 pass rusher.
Also: Tony Romo and Dez Bryant have been injured and won’t play Sunday against the Falcons in Arlington, Texas, and Jason Witten might not, either. (The Falcons are now listed as a road favorite.) Also: Drew Brees of the 0-2 Saints has a bruised rotator cuff.
Upshot: Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus slots the Falcons at No. 8 in the site’s power rankings; next-closest among NFC South entrants is Carolina, at No. 20. Even better: No team remaining on the schedule is ranked ahead of them.
More numbers: The Falcons are 10th in Football Outsiders’ proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average rankings. (Carolina is No. 9, though.) But Football Outsiders levies the Falcons’ playoff odds at 79.4 percent, gives them a 55.3 percent chance of winning the division and affords them a 22.6 percent shot at claiming the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Only Green Bay ranks higher in the latter category — at 22.9 percent.
Back to Sando, who writes:
(ESPN’s Football Power Index) gives Atlanta a 49.1 percent chance to win the division, a 16.9 percent jump from the preseason … The changes reflect what has happened to the Falcons’ opponents more than any demonstrable gains Atlanta has made in victories over the Eagles and Giants. The Falcons’ FPI rankings have inched up three spots to seventh for offense, one spot to 25th for defense, three spots to 17th for special teams and two spots to 18th overall.
Meaning: ESPN’s Power Index doesn’t see the Falcons as a great team, but they’ve won two games they weren’t supposed to win and they might well win a third this week — and these first three weeks were always seen as the toughest part of the schedule.
Sando also offers a human appraisal of the Falcons. He quotes a defensive coach who has studied the Falcons as saying:
“I really like what they are doing. All the fundamentals are installed. They have the big guys running and the little guys hitting. They have great body posture, which allows for explosive changes of direction in the underneath coverage, which should limit YAC (yards after catch). They have a four-man rush and know how to rush.”
Here Sando offers a discouraging data-driven word: ESPN’s game charting indicates that the Falcons rank 30th (of 32) in pressuring the quarterback. They have three sacks in two games, which is below the league’s median number. They’re 27th in total defense, up from the 32nd of last year but not that far up.
The point being: Given the schedule, the Falcons have given themselves a real chance to make something of this season. But anyone who sees this defense as fully rebuilt is, at this stage, being fanciful.