Off to their best start in three seasons, the 3-0 Atlanta Falcons currently stand as one of only seven undefeated teams left in the NFL and have made a case for joining the NFC’s rather thin elite class.
Though they haven’t beaten any of the widely perceived Super Bowl contenders in either conference, the Falcons early resume after three games is nonetheless impressive. The Falcons jumped all over the visiting Philadelphia Eagles for a 20-3 halftime lead and held on for a 26-24 win. They followed that up by erasing 10 and 11-point leads for comeback road victories over the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.
The Falcons haven’t won their first three games of the season since 2012, the last year they made it to the NFC title game. Atlanta had rocketed to 8-0 and wound up with 13 victories. The Falcons have won 13 or more games just three times in franchise history.
While the rest of the league is focused on how the Green Bay Packers are flourishing, at least odds makers have noticed Atlanta’s early surge. Before the season began the Falcons were 40/1 longshots to win the Super Bowl, but those odds have climbed to 25/1, according to Bovada.lv.
Much of the credit for putting the team in such an excellent spot rests on three sets of shoulders: veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, superstar receiver Julio Jones, and first-year head coach Dan Quinn.
The 30-year-old Ryan, who shook off some unforced errors against the Eagles, is now second in the NFL with 946 passing yards and five touchdowns. Four of Ryan touchdown went to Jones, who’s catching nearly every ball sent his way. Blessed with a new contract before the start of the season, Jones is first in the league with 440 receiving yards and 34 receptions, torching every secondary he’s met with precise route-running and his trademark athleticism.
Both Ryan and Jones have received their accolades, but it's Quinn’s early success that probably deserves the most recognition. After spending 20 years as a defensive line coach and coordinator, and helping the Seattle Seahawks build the league’s most feared and successful defense of the last two decades, Quinn seems to have a more effective defense in place.
Looking at the numbers, the Falcons' defense has performed below expectations at No. 23 in total yards per game (378.0) and No. 16 in points allowed (24.0). But Quinn and new defensive coordinator Richard Smith have employed a simpler scheme and made the right adjustments at halftime to turn the tide. Against the Giants, the Falcons allowed just seven points in the second half, and then later shut out the Cowboys in the second half after conceding 28 first-half points.
Furthermore, the Falcons are making significant strides for a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL last season with 398.3 yards allowed per game. General manager Thomas Dimitroff addressed the defense in the draft, using his first two picks on defensive players.
As NFL.com points out, many of the Falcons top defensive performers, like breakout rookie linebacker Vic Beasley, receive a steady stream of snaps, making the task of understanding their role much easier.
The unit proved their resolve on Sunday when they made adjustments against the Cowboys. Atlanta surrendered a miserable 131 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the first half, only to stuff Dallas at the line for minus-4 yards.
"That's where we're looking to be: a team that has great effort, shows our toughness, and knows how to finish," said Quinn after the game. "That style that we play with certainly wants to come out. We have a long way to go to get some corrections fixed. It was as hard as it can get in the first half. But having a chance to finish like that really demonstrates what we want to be all about as a group."
With a perfect record against the three best teams in the competitive NFC East, Atlanta will have a home date with the beleaguered Washington Redskins on Oct. 11. Four days later, they will feature on "Thursday Night Football" against the New Orleans Saints, who are 0-3 this season and with Drew Brees battling shoulder problems.
But Atlanta’s next test comes in the form of the Houston Texans and defensive end J.J. Watt on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Known specifically for their defense thanks to Watt’s ferocious work on the frontlines, the Texans have slightly underachieved with a 1-2 mark to start the season.
Each of Houston’s two losses were by one touchdown, and while the defense hasn’t been the juggernaut many expected it is still allowing only 20 points per game and opposing quarterbacks are averaging an 85.4 passer rating. Only eight other teams have posted better marks against quarterbacks this year, and Watt and Co. are one of the NFL’s best when it comes to stunting drives.
Atlanta enters the matchup as 6.5-point favorites in large part due to their success on third down and maintaining possession. The Falcons lead the NFL with 24 third-down conversions out of 45 attempts, the second-best rate in the league. However, the Texans counter with the second-best third-down defense in the league. Houston has allowed eight third down conversions off opponents 38 tries.
Overall, the Falcons have reason to feel optimistic about their playoff chances this early in the season. While the Carolina Panthers are also undefeated, they defeated the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars on the road, and earned two home victories by seven points against the Texans and five points against the Saints without Brees.
But after a strong start and with a rather weak schedule, Quinn appears to have the Falcons on the right track.