Experts' Picks (Consensus: first)
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The Falcons went 13-3 and made it to the NFC Championship Game last season. They're returning basically the same team with a couple of upgrades. But this team's under pressure to win more than just the NFC South.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The combination of Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Steven Jackson looks like a winner.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 Ten yards from the Super Bowl last year, Atlanta will need an even stronger performance this year.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The Falcons have the NFL's most explosive offense. They're good for 12 wins and a shot at the Super Bowl.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The Falcons will score a ton of points. Will the defense be good enough?|
Five things you need to know about the Falcons:
1. Super Bowl or bust: Wide receiver Roddy White is prone to hyperbole. But White was spot-on this offseason when he said it's Super Bowl or bust for the Falcons. This team has had five consecutive winning seasons but has only one postseason victory to show for that. Coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan are close to being labeled guys who can't win the big one. There's only one way to shed that image.
2. The return of the running game: The Falcons are still going to be a pass-first offense. But the arrival of running back Steven Jackson brings an element that was missing from the offense last season. Quite simply, the Falcons didn't have a running game as Michael Turner virtually ran out of gas in front of everyone. Jackson should open things up for the play-action passing game, and his ability to keep the clock moving should help the defense.
3. Does it really start up front? Atlanta is as loaded as any team at the offensive skill positions and has some talent in the defensive backfield and at linebacker. But the Falcons have defied the adage that everything starts up front in recent years. When you look at the offensive and defensive lines, there isn't any blue-chip talent. Maybe left tackle Sam Baker can stay healthy and have another productive season. And maybe Osi Umenyiora can come in and give the Falcons double-digit sacks. But those two are about as good as it gets across the offensive and defensive lines.
4. The kids have to be ready: The Falcons used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. One of those two will end up starting across from veteran Asante Samuel, and the other should get plenty of playing time as the third or fourth corner. Rookie corners frequently get targeted by opposing offenses. Trufant and Alford are going to need help from the pass rush and safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud.
5. Trend breakers: The bad news for the Falcons is that they won the NFC South last year. If history means anything, they won't win it again this year. Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has won the title in back-to-back years. The Falcons can make history if they can capture the NFC South crown again.
-- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
Matt Ryan set career highs in completion percentage (68.6), passing yards (4,719), touchdowns (32) and Total QBR (74.5) in 2012, but things might only get better for Ryan in 2013.
Jackson is the first true dual-threat running back the Falcons have had in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. Jackson's current streak of eight straight seasons with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 30 receptions is tied for the second longest all time. Curtis Martin (10) and LaDainian Tomlinson (8) are the only other players in NFL history to accomplish those feats eight years in a row.
Jackson's receiving skills should fit into the Falcons' offense. The Falcons ran the third-most running back screens last season (40) but ranked 22nd in yards per reception on those plays (6.7). Jackson averaged nearly 3 more yards per reception than Falcons running backs on screens last season.
• White, Jones and Gonzalez each had more than 100 targets last season. Only two other teams (Cowboys, Saints) boasted three receivers with 100-plus targets last season.
• Osi Umenyiora will need to replace John Abraham's production on the defensive line. Abraham had 28.5 sacks as part of a four or fewer man pass rush the past three seasons, 20.5 more than the next highest Falcons defender.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
WR Roddy White (13.9 avg. AV since 2010)
Since 2010, White is second in receiving yards (4,036) and tied for first in targets (502). With Matt Ryan under center, White should notch his seventh straight season of 1,100-plus yards.
-- Pro Football Reference