Around The NFC, Pre-Draft NFC South Edition 2: Atlanta

Atlanta led 2-0 in this game, but things hastily went down from there. The 10-6 Falcons went home with a bitter pill of a 24-2 loss and have not won a playoff game since the 2004 season.

Atlanta's 2011 season was a success in that they won 10 games, finishing with a winning record for the 4th year in a row. It was a disappointment in that it ended early, in a 24-2 playoff loss to the New York Giants, who eventually went on to win the Super Bowl.

The Falcons saw their season start with a loss, and an ugly one at that. Their opening game against the Chicago Bears was essentially over by the end of the first half, as the Bears romped over the Falcons on offense and defense. Matt Ryan contributed to Atlanta's woes by having an interception and fumble returned for touchdowns, meaning that he scored more points for Chicago's defense than the Falcons scored on offense. It was an embarrassing way to start the season, to be certain, and the Falcons offensive line allowed Chicago to sack Matt Ryan 5 times.

The next week, the Falcons took on the Philadelphia Eagles. The game turned into a fast-paced, wild shootout, with the Falcons coming away the victors against former face of the franchise Michael Vick. The Falcons forced three crucial turnovers by Vick, recovering two fumbles and an interception, and evened their record at 1-1. While Matt Ryan threw for just 195 yards with 2 INTs, he also threw 4 touchdown passes against the Eagles. Atlanta recovered from a 31-21 deficit, knocking out Vick in the process and taking a 35-31 lead which Mike Kafka, in his first game action since graduating Northwestern, couldn't overcome.

The Falcons split their next pair of contests, losing 16-13 to the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers (where Ryan again hit the deck repeatedly, getting sacked 4 times and losing a pair of fumbles) and defeating the Seattle Seahawks in yet another shootout (30-28). The game against Green Bay in Week 5 was an opportunity or the Falcons to add a statement win. It was also an opportunity for revenge, as the Falcons had watched their #1 seed evaporate in flames in the divisional playoffs the season before.

The Falcons got off to a 14-0 lead, whereupon the Packers started grinding away. After three field goals by Mason Crosby cut Atlanta's lead to 14-9, James Jones scored on a 70-yard touchdown strike to give Green Bay a 15-14 lead. The 2-point attempt by the Packers in the hopes of a 17-14 lead failed, but the Falcons offense proved unable to mount any substantial threat, as the Packers defense stepped up and forced the Falcons to punt on 4 consecutive drives. Atlanta's final offensive possessions ended in a pair of interceptions, the first to Charlie Peprah and the dagger INT to Jarrett Bush.

After the disheartening 25-14 home loss, the Falcons dropped to 2-3 on the season. The Falcons played the Carolina Panthers (1-4 at the time), Detroit Lions (5-1), and Indianapolis Colts (winless at the time) in their next three games, and ran off three consecutive wins to improve their record to 5-3. A home game against New Orleans followed the game against Indianapolis, and the Falcons took to the air to keep even with the Saints. Matt Ryan threw for 353 yards and 2 touchdowns, but the Falcons gambled in overtime and were burned when Michael Turner was stuffed for no gain on 4th and short. John Kasay promptly booted a 26-yard field goal, and the Falcons fell to 5-4. The loss to New Orleans in the Georgia Dome marked the 3rd consecutive season that the Falcons had lost at home to the Saints.

In Week 11, the Falcons offense sputtered in the red zone against the Tennessee Titans, but the defense managed to hold off a late surge. The following week, against the 2-9 Minnesota Vikings, the Falcons built a 17-0 lead at the half. Rather than coast to a victory, the Falcons wound up needing to survive a 104-yard kick return (thanks to Christopher Owens running down KR Percy Harvin at the last moment). The D held on a goal-line stand, and the Vikings, without Adrian Peterson, fell to 2-10, while the Falcons improved to 7-4.

Against Houston the next week, the Falcons offense never truly got into gear and the Houston Texans held Atlanta to just 10 points on the road. Atlanta defeated both Carolina and Jacksonville in consecutive weeks to improve to 9-5, Atlanta then suffered a shelling at the hands of the New Orleans Saints, 45-16, proving totally unable to stop Drew Brees down the stretch and were almost powerless as Brees shattered Dan Marino's single season passing record, which had stood since the 1984 season.

With a playoff spot all but sealed, the Falcons promptly blasted the collapsing Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 45-24, but that score implies the Bucs were ever in the game. Atlanta scored six consecutive touchdowns to take a 42-0 lead in the first half, before Tampa Bay wearily got into gear and scored 24 points. Atlanta's defense slammed the door on Tampa Bay's comeback efforts by utterly shutting down the Buccaneer's running game while forcing Josh Freeman to throw 3 interceptions. Mike Smith's Falcons clinched the 5th seed in the NFC Playoffs (the Falcons had defeated the 6th seeded Detroit Lions earlier in the season) and improved to 10-6 on the season.

The Wild Card game was one to forget for the Falcons, as the Giants scored 24 unanswered points and held the Falcons offense to 0 points. The only score of the game in Atlanta's favor was a safety. The Falcons have not won a playoff game since the 2004 season.

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OFFENSIVE RANKS

Passing Offense: 8th in the NFL, 262.0 yards per game

Rushing Offense: 17th in the NFL, 114.6 yards per game

Total Offense: 10th in the NFL, 376.6 yards per game

Scoring Offense: 7th in the NFL, 25.1 points per game

The Falcons drew some fire when they moved up in the draft to select Julio Jones 6th overall. But with Jones paired up with Roddy White, the Falcons had a good 1-2 punch at WR. With additional contributions from the ever dependable Tony Gonzalez and WR Harry Douglas, Matt Ryan threw for 4,109 yards, the most in a single season in franchise history. Michael Turner's 1,340 yards were the 3rd most by a running back in the NFL in 2011.

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DEFENSIVE RANKS

Passing Defense: 20th in the NFL, 236.6 yards per game

Rushing Defense: 6th in the NFL, 97.0 yards per game

Total Defense: 12th in the NFL, 333.3 yards per game

Scoring Defense: 18th in the NFL, 21.9 points per game

The Falcons drafted Sean Weatherspoon and Peria Jerry with first round picks in back-to-back drafts. Unfortunately for the Falcons, Jerry has not contributed significantly. The good news is that Weatherspoon was second on the team in tackles a season ago, but he'll haveast year's leading tackler, Curtis Lofton, signed with the New Orleans Saints. The Falcons signed Lofa Tatupu, but Tatupu has not played in over a year and it remains to be seen if he can play at the same level in Atlanta as he did in Seattle from 2005 to 2010.

John Abraham was re-signed, but the decision to hand Ray Edwards a 5-year, 30 million dollar contract hasn't worked out just yet. However, Edwards's play was definitely affected by a bad knee, which he had surgery on in the offseason.

AREAS TO ADDRESS:

Linebacker / Defensive End: Atlanta was one of the worst teams in the NFL when it came to 3rd down defense, and could look to upgrade their pass rush with their first few picks. However, they will have to wait until near the end of the 2nd round in order to do so: the Falcons traded both their 2011 and 2012 first round picks to Cleveland (to move up to draft Julio Jones) and won't have a first-round pick in 2012.

Tight End: Atlanta doesn't exactly have a replacement for Tony Gonzalez lined up just yet. While Gonzalez is a great player, he's also 36 years old. It would be wise for Atlanta to upgrade at this position in the draft, as Ryan Winterswyk hasn't made it to the final roster and the Falcons have shown no signs of bringing back Reggie Kelly.

Offensive Line: Sam Baker got banged up over the course of 2011, playing in 12 games with only 6 starts. Veteran C Todd McClure missed three games a year ago (and turned 35 in February), and Joe Hawley, a 4th round pick from 2010, didn't perform well at C in McClure's absence. But once McClure returned, Hawley moved to G and was much better there than he had been at center. The Falcons did sign Vince Manuwai, but Manuwai hasn't played in over a year.

OFFSEASON ADDITIONS

OG Vince Manuwai, FA (last played for Jacksonville in 2010)

LB Lofa Tatupu, FA (last played for Seattle in 2010)

OFFSEASON LOSSES

WR/PR/KR/ST Eric Weems, FA, Chicago

LB Curtis Lofton, FA, New Orleans

CURRENT FREE AGENTS

LB Mike Peterson

OT Kirk Chambers

CB Kelvin Hayden

C Brett Romberg

TE Reggie Kelly

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