2017 NFC South Previews & Predictions

Last year the Atlanta Falcons won this division and broke a 3 year strangle hold the Panthers held over this division. With their coming up short in the Super Bowl as the Panthers had the year before, will they plummet this season?? Will the Panthers rebound with rookie weapon Christian McCaffrey providing a spark??

When 2016 concluded no offense looked more predictable than Cam Newton and the Panthers. A season after scoring a team record 500 points as one of the top scoring units in NFL history, they could only average 18 points as they went 2-3 in their final 5 outings.

Not only is McCaffrey an all around threat, he can break big plays in the open field where Jonathon Stewart and Tolbert struggled mightily last season. Those of us out west watched him break huge plays in all phases of the game in Pac 12 competition. With Newton, TE Greg Olsen, and WR Kelvin Benjamin, Christian should be a serious wild card on 3rd downs and spread formations. Will it be enough for Carolina to win their 4th division crown in 5 seasons??

 

2017 NFC South Predictions

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-5*
  2. Carolina Panthers 10-6+
  3. Atlanta Falcons 7-9
  4. New Orleans Saints 5-11

In a division that sent 3 teams to the Super Bowl in the last 8 years which includes the last 2 consecutively, Tampa has taken their lumps and grown within the division. They are young and hungry & every time they take on a division rival they are playing teams who have made the NFL elite. So they know it’s in range. Last year they were 4-2 against their brothers in the NFC South and finished the season 6-2 over the 2nd half.

With the addition of DeSean Jackson and 1st round selection TE OJ Howard out of Alabama, Jameis Winston will have serious speed to stretch the field deep. Which should completely open up the intermediate areas where Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson thrive. It will back Safeties out of the box which would allow Doug Martin a superb chance at a bounce back year.

This is a big year for Martin who is in the 2nd year of a $36 million deal yet had an on again /off again season with only 429 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has been a Taylor Blitz Times favorite for many years and he has had 2- 1,400 yard seasons showcasing his talent. However Jacquizz Rodgers 560 yards and 2 scores flashed promise. Martin will get the chance as Rodgers is not an every down back. If he has another subpar season it will be his last in Tampa.

Quick question‚Ķ.how well did ‚ÄúMatty Ice‚ÄĚ and the Falcons pick up the pieces after that meltdown in the NFC Championship in 2012?? Now they are supposed to do it after blowing a 28-3 lead in a Super Bowl??

Weren’t the waning moments of the 4th quarter where Matt Ryan made his bones over the last 9 seasons?? He is about to enter his 10th season and well into the latter half of his career. 2016 saw Ryan achieve career highs in completion percentage (69.9%), 4,944 yds, 38 TDs, and interception low of 7 along with a passer rating of 117.1. He will have to adjust to the loss of Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan. They were in a comfortable groove all year and will be tough to replicate with Steve Sarkisian.

The Falcons did have the NFL’s leading sack artist in Vic Beasley with 15 1/2 sacks, however upon further review you can see where the defense needs improvement. The Falcons finished with a ranking of 17th against the run. Not bad until you remember this team had several double digit leads that forced their opponents to take to the air. So going into 2017, opponents will look to run the football and keep Ryan and Julio Jones off the field. Call it good self scouting but the Falcons have to improve on their 25th ranking allowing 4.5 yards per carry as they did last season.

This team will suffer a hangover all year and it will be imperative to see how they react in the 2nd half when opponents seize momentum. They will see the ghosts of Super Bowl LI all year and will need to recover in 2018 once they see a shrink.

The New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees will have a long year. They brought in Adrian Peterson to split time with Mark Ingram however this team will struggle with their identity and took a big loss with WR Brandin Cooks going to New England.

So the NFC South in 2018 will go to the young, hungry and lethal Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They will have the best young LB crew with Kwon Alexander, LaVonte David, and LSU rookie Kendell Beckwith. The Carolina Panthers will make the postseason as a wildcard.

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2017 Atlanta Falcons Preview

Now as the dust settled you heard QB Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons saying all the right things. “We had a great year and we’ll be back to take another shot next year.” The sting of getting to this point and letting one they should have won¬†get away was a painful elixir. The team was young and intact in most of the key spots so why wouldn’t they be back?? Huh…wait a minute… you thought we were talking Super Bowl LI?? Oh no…these were the sentiments right after Navorro Bowman knocked down their desperation pass at the goal line at the end of the 2012 NFC Championship. Why are we reaching that far back?? Keep reading…

When Alford returned Brady’s interception 82 yards for a 21-0 lead, it seemed the Falcons held an insurmountable lead.

Did you know when Alford broke out with his 82 yard interception return for a TD, it was the first in Super Bowl history returned for a score by a team that lost the game?

The turning point last February was Freeman’s whiff and Donta Hightower’s sack of Ryan.

Well a sense of de ja’ vu fell along with the confetti in Houston last February where there was a seismic shift from near Super Bowl champion to one of fallen prestige. This wasn’t an ordinary loss. It was historic and how this team can pick up the pieces and move forward offers the first questions to what they will do in 2017.

Quick question….how well did “Matty Ice” and the Falcons pick up the pieces after that meltdown in the NFC Championship in 2012?? Now they are supposed to do it after blowing a 28-3 lead in a Super Bowl??

Weren’t the waning moments of the 4th quarter where Matt Ryan made his bones over the last 9 seasons?? He is about to enter his 10th season and well into the latter half of his career. 2016 saw Ryan achieve career highs in completion percentage (69.9%), 4,944 yds, 38 TDs, and interception low of 7 along with a passer rating of 117.1. He will have to adjust to the loss of Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan. They were in a comfortable groove all year and will be tough to replicate with Steve Sarkisian.

The Falcons have had several coaching changes as Defensive Coordinator Richard Smith and DLine coach Bryan Cox were let go. New DC Marquand Manuel will inherit the 26th defense in football and will assume play calling duties. Quinn had stripped Smith of play calling duties as the Falcons foundered early in the year. Former 49er great Bryant Young will take over DLine coaching in Cox’s absence. Although Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks, as a unit they only compiled 34 as a team.

Now you see why the defending NFC Champions traded up to select Takkaris McKinley in the 1st round. You can clearly see Dan Quinn wanting to recreate the Cliff Avril / Chris Clemons twin DE pass rush when his Seahawks became champions back in 2013. If he can develop quickly this team is built to play down hill with a lead. Pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.

Can Beasley repeat his 2016 season sack total with offenses geared to stop him in ’17??

However upon further review you can see where the defense needs improvement. The Falcons finished with a ranking of 17th against the run. Not bad until you remember this team had several double digit leads that forced their opponents to take to the air. So going into 2017, opponents will look to run the football and keep Ryan and Julio Jones off the field. Call it good self scouting but the Falcons have to improve on their 25th ranking allowing 4.5 yards per carry as they did last season.

No CB can handle Jones 1 on 1. Patrick Peterson found that out the hard way.

Offensively the Falcons are built to be a juggernaut and the catalyst is All World wideout Julio Jones. A younger quicker version of Terrell Owens & truly the best receiver in football. After averaging 120 rec. for 1,732 yards over the 2014 & 2015, his numbers fell to 83 catches 1,409 yards and 6 scores. The attention he garnered allowed Mohammad Sanu & Taylor Gabriel to combine for 95 rec. 1,232 yds and 10 scores.

The offense blossomed into one of the highest scoring in NFL history with 540 points. Yet when you look at Jones, he is the one the Falcons couldn’t target enough. Just like T.O. in his only Super Bowl appearance,had the Falcons gone to him more in the 2nd half against New England they would have won. His size, speed, hands, and ability to toe tap on his sideline receptions makes him impossible to guard one on one.

If the Falcons are to repeat as NFC Champions and make it to Minneapolis, the team psychologists will be the MVP. Make no mistake the demons from Super Bowl LI are being relived in the minds of all the Falcons. It will be imperative to see how this team reacts to 2nd half momentum swings that go against them. We have to see if the team’s fight or flight mechanism has ¬†been damaged.

From an X’s and O’s standpoint, the Falcons should glide right back to the Super Bowl. The psyche of this team coming back from blowing a 28-3 lead will haunt them in 2017 and they won’t make the playoffs. Go back to all the great upsets and collapses in NFL history and you’ll see the majority of the teams follow with a disappointing season. If you have read my Missing Rings articles you’ll see The Chancellor has chronicled this over the generations.

Deion Jones seen here putting the wood to Cam Newton is a force.

A Falcon fan or sympathizer will say “yeah…but that happened to those teams”…. and those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Remember when Navorro Bowman knocked down Ryan’s 4th down attempt in the 2012 NFC Championship?? What happened?? Well…the 2013 Atlanta Falcons collapsed to 4-12 where they had been 13-3 with homefield throughout the playoffs the season before. No significant injuries and they coaxed TE Tony Gonzalez to not retire and signed RB Steve Jackson.

So here we are headed into the 2017 season… where is the psyche of this football team and what will happen this season??

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2015 NFC South Predictions

When the Carolina Panthers lost wideout Kelvin Benjamin¬†for the season, everything changed for Carolina Panther QB Cam Newton. Instead of coming into a second season with Benjamin and fellow 1,000 yard receiver in Greg Olsen, the offense regresses with Ted Ginn Jr becoming a starter. Ginn doesn’t fight for the football and hears footsteps on in routes. This further stunts Newton’s growth as he will have to run for his life again with a pedestrian receiving corps.

Falcons-590x9002015 NFC South

  1. Atlanta Falcons 10-6 *
  2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7
  3. Carolina Panthers 7-9
  4. New Orleans Saints 6-10

The heat is on for Jameis Winston especially after that first game performance losing 42-14. He was badly outplayed by Marcus Mariota and his head is definitely out of the clouds now. Yet he can turn and give the ball to the shifty Doug Martin and settle into a balanced offense.

Martin looks set to have a good 2015.

Martin looks set to have a good 2015.

Tampa has weapons in WR Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson also. Two big physical receivers that will collect all of the intermediate passes if Winston is inaccurate. The biggest lesson Tampa should have learned is to not give Winston too much of the playbook yet. Lean on the running game and expand the sophistication of the passing game as the game and season wear on. Doug Martin had a great preseason and needs to be reestablished.

New Falcon Head Coach Dan Quinn will get more out of the defense than former coach Mike Smith. Offensively this team has had the firepower to make a Super Bowl run yet came up short on the other side of the ball. Matt Ryan is in his prime and needs to mature fully as a quarterback. What is keeping him from being great are his 3rd quarter flame outs that necessitate 4th quarter heroics. Great quarterbacks keep the pressure on the opponent to keep scoring with them. The Falcons rarely get up 2 to 3 scores on opponents. ¬†So now its up to Quinn’s defense to make up the difference.

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Top Ten Quarterbacks Going Into 2013

NFL_Logo_NewWhen you’re outlining the play of NFL quarterback, you have to assess how the player will do going into the given season based upon performance and relative age. Will the quarterback break down during the season if he’s older?? What will be his prospects based upon the receiving talent coming into the new year.

The Chancellor of Football bases his analysis on a multitude of things. How does the quarterback fare statistically and is he still in his prime?? With Robert Griffin III just coming back from serious knee surgery, we left him off of this list. Everyone has their opinions and without further adieu here is ours.

Honorable Mention. Matt Schaub – Houston Texans: This has been a model quarterback in the regular season over the last 5 seasons, 3 of which he threw for more than 4,000 yards. His listing here is he has yet to gain a signature win in the playoffs. At 31 years of age we may have seen the best of Schaub who’s prime is passing with each day. This season is going to make or break his career in Houston where it’s Super Bowl or bust with an aging team.

Colin's 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Colin’s 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

10. Colin Kaepernick -San Francisco 49ers: Now the knock on him is he hasn’t played a complete season as a starting quarterback. It doesn’t matter, you can’t underscore the performance he had in last year’s playoff run. The Pistol formation and the read option is a part of the NFL as it evolves into a space game.

Clogged lines of scrimmage is a thing of the past outside of obvious goal line and 3rd or 4th and shorts. Kaepernick proved last year he developed touch on his intermediate passing game and learned to exploit Vernon Davis during the playoff run. This year will be a set back season with the loss of Michael Crabtree. Could pass for 3,000 and run for 1,000 with a healthy season. You can’t coach speed…he breaks containment…good bye.

9. Joe Flacco – Baltimore Ravens: When you come through a post season with 1,140 yards 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, it’s hard not to anoint a quarterback among the league’s elite. Not so fast. He only completed 59% of his passes in the regular season which is what he had as a percentage in the playoffs. His security blanket in Anquan Boldin is running routes 2,000 miles to the west. This will have an affect on Flacco coming into 2013.

Think back to every tight situation the Ravens were in, who did Flacco turn to? He turned to Boldin where he hadn’t in years past. See pass to Lee Evans at the end of 2011 AFC Championship Game. Think back to last year’s Super Bowl when the 49ers made it to 31-29. Flacco had a key third down where he needed to keep the Niner’s offense off the field: Who did he go to even with tight coverage?? Boldin. He fought for the ball and a key first down. According to ESPN, he completed 62% of his passe attempt to Boldin and only 48% of his passes to every other Raven.

It took him nearly 5 years to develop a trust for Boldin in key situations. So where do we go from here?? He does have Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith to throw to but how bad will he miss Boldin. Today Jones fails the conditioning contest as the Ravens reported to training camp. Does he turn back into the dink and dunk quarterback throwing outlet passes to Ray Rice or keep throwing down-field?? This will be a season of growing pains early on for him and why he’s 8th on this list.

Mannung delivered in year one as the Broncos finished 13-3 in 2012.

Mannung delivered in year one as the Broncos finished 13-3 in 2012.

8. Peyton Manning -Denver Broncos: In the twilight of his career, he had one of his greatest statistical seasons in 2012. However a closer look at his play down the stretch and against teams in particular, lowered his ranking. His season mirrored that of the Broncos overall, they feasted on a lot of patsies to pad their stats. In the last five weeks of the season, he faced the Chiefs twice, Oakland, Baltimore, and Cleveland or the teams that were 12th (twice), 32nd, 20th, 17th, and 25th against the pass. Not a strong group as the team went 5-0 down the stretch. The only reason the 2-14 Chiefs pass defense wasn’t rated lower (12th), they were a team that had given up at that point of the season, were behind and opponents weren’t passing.

Yet if you look at his play against the five playoff teams faced, two of his worst outings were in this pack. He threw 3 interceptions losing in Atlanta, and 2 more in a 31-23 win against Cincinnati. Still he’s a Super Bowl caliber quarterback in the early part of the season and the AFC West will be better prepared for Manning 2.0. His arm may give out late on him again and he’s had some issues with his neck and arm this off-season. He’s never been that good in cold games and if the Broncos did make it to this year’s Super Bowl, good luck with the weather in New Jersey.

7. Matt Ryan-Atlanta Falcons: ‘Matty Ice” has grown every single year in the NFL and is this season’s version of Joe Flacco. He finally won his first playoff game and has had numerous 4th quarter drives as well. He had to lift his Falcons with a playoff comeback against the Seahawks in the final stanza as well. Last year he completed a whopping 68.6% of his passes for 32 touchdowns. One problem he has is he disappears in the middle of games which necessitates the need to come from behind. If he can make it to Super Bowl XLVIII, this list definitely gets revamped.

Center Max Unger was an All Pro and protected Russell Wilson like The Hope Diamond.

Center Max Unger was an All Pro and protected Russell Wilson like The Hope Diamond.

6. Russell Wilson- Seattle Seahawks: One of the biggest beneficiaries to RGIII when it comes to this list is Wilson. After all his team did beat Washington in the playoffs and took a late 28-27 lead against the Falcons in the divisional round, and appeared headed to the NFC Championship Game as well. However folks that want to talk about Andrew Luck and RG III, forgot that it was Wilson who had the best rookie QB season in NFL history. Not only did he tie Peyton Manning’s 1998 record of 26 TDs thrown, he only had 10 interceptions as compared to the 28 Manning threw. All this while throwing for 3,118 yards and rushing for 489 yards and another 4TDs. He also has Percy Harvin to run after the catch for him at least 65-70 times coming up. He could be Super Bowl bound this year also.

5. Ben Roethlisberger -Pittsburgh Steelers: The quarterback that is always left out of the conversation when you talk about the NFL’s best signal callers. One might look at this list and say Big Ben was only 7-6 as a starter last year. Yet those same pundits forget that the Steelers put in a new offense, one he didn’t favor. Yet in that crucible he still completed 63% of his passes for 26 TDs and only 8 interceptions. Uh…excuse me those TD and interception numbers were the second best of his 9 year career. What do you think he’ll do as an encore now that he has a running game with the arrival of LeVeon Bell??

Brady will be pointing out more than protections and who is the "Mike" linebacker in 2013.

Brady will be pointing out more than protections and who is the “Mike” linebacker in 2013.

4. Tom Brady -New England Patriots: It’s hard to believe but Brady could have and should have fallen farther on this list. No time in NFL history has a high ranking offense (#1) returned with 91% of their starters gone. We’re in uncharted waters here. However the Patriots drafted him two dynamite receivers in Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Yet it remains to be seen how they’ll develop. The same can be said of the prospects of Gronkowski returning from multiple surgeries. Will Danny Amendola live up to the $31 million contract as well?? Odds are 2 of the 4 will come through but that would mean a drop from an offense that has scored over 500 points in 3 straight years.

Could you imagine The Greatest Show on Turf going into a new season and Kurt Warner didn’t have Isaac Bruce, Tory Holt, Az Zahir Hakim, and Marshall Faulk?? That is the only equivalent to what Brady faces going into the 2013 season. Why?? This was the only other team that scored 500 points in 3 successive seasons. Brady has played well with other receivers but remember last year the offense went back to Wes Welker once the tight ends were in the infirmary. Welker is in Denver now…so we shall see.

3. Drew Brees- New Orleans Saints:¬†The Saints are coming off a year where Brees had to overcome Head Coach Sean Payton enduring a season long suspension. Now he gets his confidante back yet loses his Pro Bowl LT Jermon Bushrod in free agency to the Chicago Bears. They did retain WR Marques Colston but they found themselves over the cap and couldn’t help their $100 million quarterback out much.

The Saints face what all Super Bowl champions wind up facing. You try so hard to field the team that won the Super Bowl in ensuing years, that you forget to make adjustments to all the moves opponents are making to knock you off. So while they kept WR Marques Colston, in comes CB Darrelle Revis and S Dashon Goldson to Tampa Bay.

This illustrates how Brees will stay down a notch in 2013 like he did last year. He threw for 19 interceptions as he tried to rally the Saints from deficits his defense gave away. With 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns this should be the #1 quarterback. With the flux on the line, better defenses within the division, and porous defense, he’s going to throw more interceptions than he should and keep him 3rd on this list.

If Rodgers continues at this pace, his career statistics could be staggering.

If Rodgers continues at this pace, his career statistics could be staggering.

2. Aaron Rodgers -Green Bay Packers: You’re looking at the game’s statistical anomaly in Rodgers. Do you realize he’s only thrown 14 interceptions vs 84 touchdowns over the last two years?? Only Drew Brees has stayed on such an extended run of excellence. Last year Rodgers completed an astonishing 67.2% of his passes for 4,295 yards. So why just a number two ranking??

The first is Rodgers is a tremendous quarterback as long as the Green Bay Packers have a lead. When others get in front he doesn’t bring them from behind. The same can be said if a defense knocks he and the Packers offense off of their timing early, they stay a bit off pace the rest of the game. Take a look at their losses to the San Francisco 49ers to bookend the season. In week one, the Niners jumped on top 16-7 in Lambeau before halftime. It took until 6:00 to go in the game before the Packers saw the endzone in a 30-22 loss. In the playoff loss they fell behind 24-21 and couldn’t muster a touchdown for nearly the entire second half. By then the 49ers were on cruise control 45-24.

Sure it can be harsh using a comparison for Rodgers against the eventual NFC Champion 49ers, but Russell Wilson clobbered them 42-13 on Sunday Night Football. Eli Manning danced over them 26- 3 in Candlestick. You want to believe you are the best you need to prove you can beat the best and Rodgers’s Packers fell short of that in 2012.

Last year Rodgers and the Packers lost 5 times, each to a ¬†team that made the playoffs, while going 1-2 against quarterbacks on this list. The lone win?? A 28-27 win over Brees and New Orleans. Now Donald Driver retires and Rodgers favorite target of the last four years, Greg Jennings, signs with the hated Vikings. There is some speculation the team may move Jermichael Finley as well. This will be a new year for him now with a few rookie linemen protecting him also. He’s number one on a lot of lists….just not at the Taylor Blitz Times for all we just pointed out to you.

Eli Manning's late game heroics make him the best in the NFL today.

Eli Manning’s late game heroics make him the best in the NFL today.

1.Eli Manning-New York Giants: Our CEO lobbied loudly for Eli to be the number one quarterback on this list. Yet like we offered up front, this isn’t a lifetime achievement award but we are talking about a two time Super Bowl MVP. What separates Eli from his contemporaries is how he’s at his best against the highest level of competition, and his performance at the end of games. So you forgot that Eli and the Giants routed future NFC Champion San Francisco 26-3, routed Drew Brees and his Saints 52-27, and head slapped the Packers 38-10 last year. That’s #2 and 3 on this list he beat head to head in 2012.

Last year’s Pro Bowl status was actually cemented in week 2, when he threw for 245 yards in the fourth quarter to bring the Giants back to win 41-34. He finished with 510 yards passing & came within 44 yards of Norm Van Brocklin’s 62 year old record of 554. One of the NFL’s oldest records. ¬†The Giants scored 25 4th quarter points. Yikes!

In that game, the nerves of steel he flashed on two Super Bowl winning drives before, was on full display and has won over some critics. Five weeks later, Eli was behind late in his first high profile game against RGIII’s Redskins, and he struck again. Down 23-20 with 1:27 left, the Giants were pinned to their own 20 yard line. Where other quarterbacks are conservative with their throws trying to get into field goal range, Manning struck a thunderous blow by going 77 yards for the winning touchdown with a bomb to Victor Cruz. Ballgame!! He caught the safety cheating up and applied a sword to the heart. The New York Football Giants are never out of a game with Manning at the helm. They came from behind 3 times last year.

Others don’t realize how durable he is. He hasn’t missed a game in 8 years and now he has been to the last two Pro Bowls. His best receiver Victor Cruz just signed a $46 million contract keeping him in New York along with WR Hakeem Nicks. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime and he will win a 3rd Super Bowl for the Giants within the next 3 years. Possibly this year in his own stadium. Do you realize he’s the only quarterback in the top 5 of this list who returns with his top receivers intact?? What will this list look like next year??

So that’s it… Our 2013 list…

Epilogue: Ron Jaworski picks Eli 8th in his selection going into 2013. Absolutely the dumbest analysis I have heard in nearly a decade. Just a year removed from his second Super Bowl ring I offered this in the Giants 2012 team preview — “Get used to it Giant fans, Manning is like a great ‚ÄúB‚ÄĚ student. He will stumble on some assignments but he‚Äôs a great test taker and comes through in the end. Do you realize Manning is now 7-1 in postseason games away from the Meadowlands? He now has postseason wins over an 18-0 Patriot team in Super Bowl XLII, and an upset over a 15-1 Packers team in last year‚Äôs playoff. ¬†He is the only quarterback in NFL history to defeat 5 postseason foes with records of 13-3 or better. ¬†No one even comes close to that.”

Since he’s not the sexiest player in some sportswriters eyes, no one is talking about the fact he could possibly become the first quarterback in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl in his own home stadium. This isn’t the Cowboys and Tony Romo hoping against common sense two seasons ago when the big game was in Dallas. We’re talking about a two time Super Bowl MVP who could tie Joe Montana if he gets there and captures that award again. Recognize greatness when you see it…and don’t give him the ball for a final drive within striking distance either.

Next: Top ten running backs going into the 2013 season

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

2013 Atlanta Falcons Preview – Did They Let Their Super Bowl Window Close?

Julio Jones was on a roll in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.

Julio Jones was on a roll in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.

Think back to the second quarter of last year’s NFC Championship Game for a second. Julio Jones had just caught his second touchdown to put the Atlanta Falcons up 17-0. The crowd was into the game and after the comeback scare the Seattle Seahawks threw at them the week before, there was no way the 49ers were going to comeback. No way. They were just a little over 2 quarters away from Super Bowl XLVII….or so they thought.

The 49ers roared back to rob the Falcons of that trip. It looked like the maturation of the 5 year plan of Head Coach Mike Smith had fallen just short. Future Hall of Fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez stood before the media  saying goodbye. A great NFL season had come to an abrupt halt.

However it looks like the 5 year plan came with a one year option as the Falcons coaxed Gonzalez out of retiring. They replaced a slowing Michael Turner with former St Louis Ram Steven Jackson to increase offensive firepower. Talks are still ongoing with former Giant DE Osi Yumeniora, who lives in Atlanta by the way, to replace the departed John Abraham. ¬†Then get this… since the Falcons have lost more free agents then they have signed they have been awarded four additional draft picks for this year. An extra fourth rounder and three seventh rounders for a total of 11 draft picks. Maybe this sixth year won’t be so bad after all.

Matt Ryan's 6th year is where he has to step into the league's elite in the playoffs.

Matt Ryan’s 6th year is where he has to step into the league’s elite in the playoffs.

Quarterback:¬†Nowhere else can you look at a quarterback and say the future is now like you have to with Matt Ryan. Once we watched Joe Flacco break through to join the ranks of Super Bowl champion quarterbacks, just winning a playoff game is not enough. Although if you look at the playoff game he won he showed you why some still have question marks about him. In that game he was 24 of 35 for 250 yards 3TDs, but threw 2 interceptions that helped fuel Seattle’s comeback. He disappears in the middle of games and did so in the NFC Championship as well.

What leads to the upside is he did march the Falcons to his first playoff win after falling behind with :31 left to play. With a berth in the NFC ¬†Championship at stake “Matty Ice” connected on 3 passes and put them in range of the winning field goal to escape 30-28. He led the Falcons on 6 last second winning drives like that in the regular season, so he is cool under fire.

For the season, his stats were spectacular completing 68.6% of his passes for a team record 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. Owner Arthur Blank succeeded in drafting a QB to be the face of the franchise after the Michael Vick era. However Ryan sat in that tier of “yeah-but” quarterbacks with Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, and Tony Romo as regular season statistical guys that hadn’t shown up in the post-season. Now that he’s in his prime and Flacco broke through that wall, he has to do so as well. He has to keep his intensity for the entire game and not wait until the last minute. At quarterback the Falcons are Super Bowl quality.

Jackson should be deadly in this offense.

Jackson should be deadly in this offense.

Offensive Backfield: The signing of former St Louis Ram running back Steven Jackson could be the move to put Atlanta over the top. Face it Michael Turner in recent years declined from being a good running back to a marginal ball carrier. He could only get the yardage the offensive line produced and nothing more. Evidence?? How about 3.6 yards per carry for the season??

Enter Steven Jackson. There was an overall feeling in previous years, throughout the league, that the Falcons weren’t a tough team. Jackson with his bruising style should change that completely. Although the Rams went to a passing offense he still made it to 1,042 yards in just 257 carries. In 7 of the last 8 seasons he has averaged 4.1 yards per carry or greater. That’s as the focal point of the offense.

Now he gets to line up with Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonalez as passing targets to free the running lanes?? Yikes!! He hasn’t had anywhere near that much talent around him before…trust us Danny Amendola doesn’t scare defensive co-ordinators. He should have a 1,400 yard season now that he has a chance at a Super Bowl ring. That hunger should feed the team’s urgency as well. Jacquizz Rodgers is the 3rd down / change of pace back who has some burst. Only going into his 3rd year he’s learning the game and is adept at slipping out and catching passes for 1st downs. They’re going to be playoff quality¬†at least with Jason Snelling backing up Jackson as well.

One more year for the future Hall of Famer.

One more year for the future Hall of Famer.

Receivers:¬†Just when NFC South defensive co-ordinators thought they could take a break, Atlanta drafts Julio Jones. Now they bring back Tony Gonzalez for another go ’round. By the way you do realize in 2010 Roddy White led the NFL with 115 receptions while being second in yards with 1389 yards right? That was 3 years ago?? Well last year White caught 92 passes for 1,351 yards and 7 touchdowns and may not be the best receiver on the team anymore. Julio Jones replaced him on the NFC Pro Bowl roster after a 79 catch ¬†1,198 yard season where he scored 10 touchdowns. This is firepower!! Jones is only going into his 3rd season and benefits from the coverage afforded White and Gonzalez. Defenses can pick their poison because they are going to lose.

Which brings us to the slowing, aging veteran tight end in Tony Gonzalez. Wait a minute, what aging process?? He caught 93 passes for 930 yards and 8 touchdowns. He was voted All Pro and made the Pro Bowl. In all actuality, this may be the greatest group of traditional receivers (2WR / 1TE) in NFL history. It certainly is when it comes to production. These guys had 264 rec. for 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns. Compare this with the 1980 San Diego Chargers who had John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow when they had 242 receptions for 3,762 yards and 26 touchdowns. It’s certainly worth debating and for one more year this team is Super Bowl quality at the receiver position.

Offensive Line: One loss for Atlanta is the retirement of 14 year Center Todd McClure. However the line needs some improvement as evidenced by their fall to 29th in rushing with just over 1,300 yards. In contrast with the same cast of characters they were 12th in 2010 with almost 1900 yards. Look for a draft pick to be used to fortify the offensive line, whether a Center is drafted or a guard is picked. One will switch over to snap the football. They only allowed 28 sacks as a unit but frequently couldn’t push the pile on 3rd and 1 to keep drives going. Did you know that on 3rd or 4th and 1 including goal line, this group could only power for the first down or touchdown on 50% of rushing plays up the middle or to the strong side??

How much of that falls on the line and how much falls on the running backs?? Well since every running back ran for less than 4.0 yards per carry and the short yard percentages were 25th and 24th respectively, this group gets the blame. When it’s 3rd and 1, you don’t need Eric Dickerson to get that yard. It’s a matter of attitude and toughness at that point and this team needs to get tougher on the point when they run. Since they did get Matt Ryan hit 80 times passing the football this team gets an average grade on the offensive line. We have to see how they develop.

Defensive Line: Although there is speculation this team still hasn’t signed Osi Yumeniora or the replacement for John ¬†Abraham yet. You have to understand they needed help to rush the passer anyway. Did you know that John Abraham not only didn’t record a sack in last year’s two playoff games, he didn’t produce 1 tackle?? You have to go back to the two losses to the Giants and Packers in 2011 and 2010 to find some postseason pass rush from him. Just one sack in each of those which turned out to be losses. Kroy Bierman (4 1/2 sacks) Jonathon Babineaux (3 1/2 sacks) and Vance Wlker (3 sacks) are the returning linemen. Just 10 sacks between them. The Falcons were 24th overall and 21st against the run and this group has to take the brunt of that as well.

The Falcons will need to draft some help and possibly sign two key free agents here. After watching this group get tortured trying to chase Russell Wilson who threw for a postseason rookie record of 385 yards against them, you see why Falcon’s Brass is making the change. That should have favored a John Abraham and it didn’t. This could be the group that sinks the Super Bowl aspirations of this team and is below average.

Weatherspoon is a fast heady player who should continue to get better.

Weatherspoon is a fast heady player who should continue to get better.

Linebackers: This is a speedy group that often gets linemen out on them when the team is run on. They have to shed blocks better and Sean Weatherspoon should have a breakout year going into his fourth season. Last year he tied Stephan Nicholas with 95 tackles for the team lead while compiling 3 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.This is with him missing 3 games last year.

Nicholas also garnered 2 sacks and an interception in his 6th season. Right now they are as good as it gets in the NFC South. These two are on the field for nearly every play including the Spread and Pistol formations. They just need to make a few more splash plays and force more turnovers to improve the defense from a statistical and tactical standpoint. With a little improvement this will be a playoff quality group.

Secondary: Last year the Falcons acquired Asante Samuel to help with the nickle slot receivers and insurance if they lost Brent Grimes or Dunta Robinson. Turns out Grimes went down with an injury and all Samuel did was intercept 5 passes returning them for 110 yards and 1 touchdown. What was amazing is the Falcons only had 7 total interceptions from their cornerbacks. Now Grimes and Robinson are elsewhere and Samuel is entrenched as a starter. Opposite him could be Robert McClain but he’s more of a journeyman than a starting cornerback. Look for the Falcons to make a move for a veteran here with a late summer pick up more than a draft choice since they’re trying to win now.

Samuel is the NFL's all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

Samuel is the NFL’s all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

The Falcons are better at safety where Thomas DeCoud (76 tackles / 6 ints) and William Moore (76 tackles / 4 ints) had a nose for the football. Each will support the run and tackle well in space. Since the Falcons have to manufacture a pass rush they’ll blitz their safeties as well. Both DeCoud and Moore recorded sacks last year. One of the reasons the Falcons were exposed in the secondary was the weak pass rush that left them in coverage too long. If they can shore that up this would be a playoff quality group, right now we have to leave their ranking as average.

Overall: The Chancellor of Football’s crystal ball comes down to the Falcons taking a trip to Seattle for the NFC Championship if the Falcons complete the moves necessary to move forward. Shore up the Center position, rush the quarterback better and give the ball to Steven Jackson to maintain drives like Michael Turner used to in years gone by. Matt Ryan needs to play complete games and not take 3rd quarters off and a better running game can aid from a tactical standpoint. Shore these up and they can make a run at history. Keep your eye on one or two defenders that get cut by other teams being scooped up to fill holes in the defense. Last year it worked with Samuel. For the 3rd straight year Taylor Blitz Times has the Atlanta Falcons headed for the conference championship…

They host RG III and the Redskins, Patriots, and Seattle again with the winner of that game possibly getting the homefield advantage. After that there are two away games that present problems. One trip to San Francisco and one to Green Bay, if the running game is intact each of those are very winnable. The Chancellor sees the Falcons with an 11-5 or a 12-4 record. They won’t go 13-3 again. It’s all lined up for them if they get the breaks and shore up their defensive front. Time will tell if Matt Ryan is going to make them a Super Bowl team.

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

2012 NFC Championship Preview: San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons

The George Halas Trophy that is awarded to the NFC Champion.

The George Halas Trophy that is awarded to the NFC Champion.

Well we only have a few days left to see who will punch their ticket to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. San Francisco comes in riding the emotional high of having vanquished the Green Bay Packers, behind Colin Kaepernick’s record-setting performance. Where the Falcons are starting to understand who they are in winning their first playoff game under the current coaching regime. This is the most intriguing match-up of the conference finals weekend.

In the divisional round we learned what Atlanta has grown accustomed to do, will carry over into the playoffs. Including last week, they had gone 8-2 in games decided by 7 points or less. That lass loss was a meaningless game to conclude the regular season. If you go back to the 4th game of the season, it matched what took place in last week’s game with Seattle. They were behind 28-27 with less than 1:00 to go when Matt Ryan led them to a last second field goal and a 30-28 come from behind victory.

The banter and hard hitting between Seattle and Atlanta could spawn a bitter playoff rivalry.

The banter and hard hitting between Seattle and Atlanta could spawn a bitter playoff rivalry.

Sure the first victory came against the Carolina Panthers but now the Falcons performed the encore in ¬†the playoffs. Many fans didn’t care what they did until they made it to the playoffs. Many were ¬†sure they were going to lose their first game before the playoffs even began. ¬†The Taylor Blitz Times believed in the Atlanta Falcons yet felt the Seahawks were playing better heading into last week’s game. However this was the game where “Matty Ice” and Coach Mike Smith came of age and won their first playoff game. Will they go into this conference championship brimming with the confidence of the team that left the field, or the tentative nervous bunch that watched a 20 point lead vanish in the fourth quarter??

One thing about the NFL playoffs, when the national media focuses on one aspect of a football team they normally overlook another. This is happening as we speak with all attention on Kaepernick, no one is covering the fact the 49ers are allowing 30 points per game on average in their last 4 games. In fact if you take out the win against the hapless Arizona Cardinals, that average jumps to 35.6!! What is happening to the great San Francisco defense??

Colin's 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Colin’s 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Remember the style of offense the Niners were running that kept their defense rested at the beginning of the season?? That isn’t the case any longer. For a team that finished 4th overall allowing 294.4 yards per game, it’s now allowing 406 to go with the 35.6 points given up in those 3!! Are you paying attention?? They are wearing out their own defense and now they have to go on the road for the NFC Championship Game. If you take out the 3 games we’re talking about, the 49ers gave up an average of just 256.6 yards per game in the other 14.

Now while everyone is giddy over the record-setting performance of the quarterback, let’s remember that happened at home. How did he fare in his last road game?? He was chased out of Seattle. Do we get that Kaepernick, or the one that torched the Patriots on Sunday night football?? Sandwiched between those two performances was a very forgettable road loss that is being ignored largely.

We said in our NFC South Preview¬†https://taylorblitztimes.com/2012/08/27/2012-nfc-south-previews-predictions/ this was the time for Coach Smith’s 4 year plan to mature. Michael Turner is about to turn 30 and one of history’s finest tight ends in Tony Gonzalez is set to retire after the season. Now with the emergence of Jacquizz Rodgers as the change of pace back that can spell Michael Turner, the Falcons have more explosiveness on the field than with RB Jason Snelling. One of the unsung acquisitions that should pay off in this football game is CB Asante Samuel. He stepped in when Brent Grimes went down on IR and has been a key contributor. Do you realize that Samuel is the leading interceptor and yardage leader in NFL playoff history?? One lazy sideline pass can be disastrous against this group. They were the 5th most larcenist defense in the NFL with 20 interceptions and the Georgia Dome will be loud this Sunday.

Samuel is the NFL's all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

Samuel is the NFL’s all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

What was interesting was how slow the Packers were in adjusting in last week’s divisional playoff. This is the NFL and we have seen this type of quarterback before. Whether we’re talking 2002 Michael Vick, 1987 Steve Young, a 1987 John Elway, or a 1989 Randall Cunningham. The number one way to get after them were to clog their escape routes sending 5 to 6 rushers after them. After all, this defense has to chase Cam Newton twice a year so they’r equipped to do it. In Randall Cunningham’s case, the Los Angeles Rams confused him with everyone up on the line of scrimmage. By the time he knew who was rushing and who was dropping, his team fell behind and the game was out of reach.

The one thing going for the 49ers last week was the fact that it was quiet and Packer pass rushers couldn’t get the jump on their offensive tackles. Expect more delayed blitzes and zone blitzes this week to accompany John Abraham off the corner with all the Georgia Dome crowd noise. Instead of defenders with their backs to Kaepernick in man to man, they will be facing him and should keep scrambles at a minimum gain. The Falcons will look to get Colin to look down at running lanes and his vision off the downfield receivers. That is a big no-no in the NFL.

One other axiom of the NFL as Nick Buoniconti once said about the NFL playoffs circa 1987 “What happens the week before, doesn’t necessarily happen the next week.” Eric Dickerson ran for a playoff record 248 yards in a divisional playoff in 1985, then lost in the NFC Championship Game. Anthony Carter caught a playoff record 227 yards passing in a divisional playoff in 1987, only to lose in the NFC Championship Game. Peyton Manning threw for a record 457 yards (most ever in a regulation playoff game) in 2004 only to fall ¬†in the divisional round against New England. You have the 1995 Buffalo Bills who rushed for a modern playoff record (post modern 1950 NFL) 341 yards in a Wild Card win over Miami, only to collapse in the AFC Divisional in Three Rivers. Then finally the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars who scored the most points (post modern 1950 NFL) with 62 in the AFC Dvisional playoff only to lose in the AFC Championship Game.

The 49ers are going to depend on that type of performance by Kaepernick again and won’t get it early as they fall behind. Just like the other teams that had record setting performances in year’s past. The Falcons have two unheralded linebackers in Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas that can flat out run. Not only will the Atlanta Falcons get the early lead after forcing a few 3 and outs early….they should win the game 30-21. Atlanta will be making the trip to New Orleans.

By the way….look at what arrived in Atlanta today…

This year's George Halas NFC Championship Trophy  just arrived today in Atlanta.

This year’s George Halas NFC Championship Trophy just arrived today in Atlanta.

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