The Atlanta Falcons became only the third team in NFL history and the first in over three decades to beat both of the teams in the most recent Super Bowl. And they did it in back-to-back weeks, with convincing wins over both the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos.
It’s an exciting start for the Falcons — now 4-1 and well ahead of the rest of the division. The team’s offense may be the best in the NFL and the defense stepped up to shut down Paxton Lynch and the Broncos offense in Week 5.
But all of this sounds very familiar. A year ago, the Falcons were 5-0 with Julio Jones ripping the rest of the NFL to shreds. Then the team lost seven of the next eight games and limped to an 8-8 finish.
Why should we be convinced that the 2016 Falcons aren’t about to do the same?
“It’s a different group,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday. “We’re a mentally tougher group than we were. We have real ability to understand how we have to reset to get ready to go right back to that process.”
For now, the “we’re better and smarter than last year” answer isn’t going to convince the doubters until the Falcons add a couple more wins. But there are some signature differences between Atlanta’s 2015 and 2016 squads that make the likelihood of another collapse seem slim.
The Falcons marched easy street to 5-0 in 2015
During Atlanta’s 4-0 start a year ago, the team beat the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, and Houston Texans. It survived a sloppy three-turnover game in Week 5 with an overtime victory over Washington to push to 5-0.
Only Washington and Houston finished that season with winning records, but only after both teams went 6-2 in the back half of the season to make the playoffs.
Getting a win in the NFL is never a given so 5-0 is a tough mark to reach, regardless. But even at the time, most believed a fall from grace was on the way with tougher competition ahead.
“Suggesting that this Falcons team is anything more than average is a stretch,” USA Today wrote after the 5-0 start. “The Falcons will continue reaping the benefits of an absurdly easy schedule, but the bottom will fall out sooner rather than later. This was and remains a transitional year for the franchise, everything else is just a red herring.”
But the Falcons’ schedule in 2016 has been anything but easy.
A loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 is puzzling, but the Falcons have wins over the Panthers, Broncos, and Oakland Raiders.
Carolina may not be the same team it was, but it’s hard to argue it’s not still a dangerous team. And both the Broncos and Raiders are 4-1 with their only losses coming against the Falcons.
It may have been Paxton Lynch instead of Trevor Siemian Sunday, but the Falcons set the tone early by marching down the field for a touchdown, finishing the game with 372 yards of offense — a mark only the Pittsburgh Steelers managed to top against the Broncos in 2015.
The wins have been convincing
One of the big reasons why so many were skeptical about the Falcons in 2015 wasn’t just that the team earned wins against lesser competition. It was that they barely earned those wins.
The Falcons trailed in four of the five wins, only cruising to a victory against the Texans. Winning ugly isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s definitely better to win pretty, if possible, and the 2016 Falcons have done that.
Come-from-behind victories haven’t been necessary during the team’s current four-game winning streak and the score possibly could’ve been worse in each if Atlanta didn’t ease off the gas pedal.
Atlanta had over 100 more total yards than both the Panthers and Broncos in the last two weeks and haven’t had the benefit of a slew of turnovers like they did in the strong 2015 start.
The defense actually isn’t terrible
Make no mistake, the Falcons are a threat because the offense is a force to be reckoned with. But the defense has been building under Quinn and looks like it’s reached the point that it can provide Atlanta with enough balance to compete with any team.
Statistically, the defense is worse than it was a year ago.
After shootout wins over the Raiders, Saints, and Panthers, the stats were tanked and the Falcons are No. 25 in points allowed and No. 26 in yards allowed. But the win on Sunday against the Broncos told a different story.
Lynch was sacked six times by the Falcons defense — 3.5 times by 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley.
The last time Atlanta racked up six or more sacks in a game was a 2005 win over the Minnesota Vikings. For now, it’s just one game for a Falcons team that had just four sacks in the first four weeks, but Quinn sought to bring an attacking defense and it finally looked the part on Sunday.
This despite the fact that the Falcons have had remarkably bad luck at the linebacker position. Second-round rookie Deion Jones — who has been excellent to start his career — was out this week with an ankle injury. Fourth-rounder De'Vondre Campbell has been out since Week 2.
Sean Weatherspoon tore his Achilles and Paul Worrilow had groin surgery. The team is down to just a handful of linebackers on the roster and signed A.J. Hawk to help fill the gaps in the roster.
But it didn’t matter against Denver.
If players like Beasley and 2015 fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett — another standout on Sunday — start wreaking havoc in the backfield with more consistent, the Falcons defense could start to look more like the one that flummoxed the Broncos offense in Week 5.
“It's always been an emphasis, getting after the quarterback, and today happened to be a good day,” Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “It's not always going to be like this. The other guys on the other side of the ball get going, too, but today was a good day for us.”
It could be especially useful against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6 — another team with an elite defense but a subpar offense that has struggled to deal with opposing pass rushers.
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The Falcons are one of the NFL’s hottest teams, but already gave us reason to doubt any quick start by self-destructing in 2015. Just like this year, Julio Jones was shredding defenses before he faded down the stretch.
But there’s a feeling of legitimacy to the team’s 4-1 start this year after earning their stripes against strong opponents. The same couldn’t be said about the 5-0 start in 2016.
Even if the Falcons drop a Week 6 game on the road to the Seahawks — a fate most teams encounter at CenturyLink Field — it would be surprising if another six-game losing streak is on the way for Atlanta like the 2015 season.
Instead, the Falcons look like legitimate contenders in the NFC and the early favorite to run away with the NFC South crown.