Every NFL season brings with it outliers who far exceed expectations or disappoint miserably. With the futures odds set for the 2021 NFL season, we examine that broad range of possibilities for the Atlanta Falcons.
When Last We Met
Things got worse as the Falcons blew consecutive leads of 15 points or more in fourth quarters and dropped to 0-3. The season reached its nadir following an 0-5 start, which saw head coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff dismissed.
It was the first time the Falcons started 0-5 since 1997 and Atlanta was well on its way to missing the playoffs for a third straight season. The Falcons underperformed their NFL betting lines, getting off to a 1-4 start ATS as well.
Raheem Morris was named interim coach and won his first game. The results under Morris weren’t great either, but the defense saw a marked improvement. Through the first five games, the Falcons allowed 32.2 points per game. Under Morris, that total was 23 points per game.
Morris compiled a 4-7 record and the Falcons finished the season last place in the NFC South for the first time since 2007. Atlanta was a team to steer clear of when betting online in 2020, with a 7-9 record ATS.
To Miss the Playoffs (-270)
After much speculation about his future, Matt Ryan is back, but the organization and roster around him are in flux. Atlanta’s NFL playoff odds suggest that the Falcons are likely to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Arthur Smith, who spent 10 seasons in the Titans’ organization and was most recently offensive coordinator, was hired to be Atlanta’s head coach. Former Bears passing game coordinator Dave Ragone and Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees were hired as offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, respectively. Terry Fontenot was named GM after 18 years in the Saints’ organization.
After prolonged trade talks, Fontenot and Atlanta traded star wideout Julio Jones in June. Jones, who turned 32 this year, is the Falcons all-time receiving leader, with 12,896 yards on 848 receptions and 60 TDs.
The Falcons got much-needed cap relief and a 2022 second-rounder and 2023 third-rounder in return. However, in the short term, this trade doesn’t make the Falcons better.
After five seasons in Atlanta and three Pro Bowl appearances, Center Alex Mack signed a three-year deal with the 49ers. Replacing him will be a tough task for 2020 third-round pick Matt Hennessy, who only played on 20% of offensive snaps last season.
The offensive line has usually been a sticking point during Ryan’s tenure and that’s not expected to change in 2021. LT Jake Matthews and RG Chris Lindstrom are solid players but there are more questions than answers. Third-round draft pick Jalen Mayfield could challenge for the left guard position.
An extension of the struggles of the offensive line, the run game was virtually non-existent in 2020. Atlanta finished second to last in the NFL with just 3.7 yards per carry. Todd Gurley had a tough year as Atlanta’s lead back and he’s no longer with the team.
The Falcons scooped up Mike Davis, who filled in for Christian McCaffrey with the Panthers last year. However, Davis averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and he’ll likely be part of a committee solution in Atlanta. Don’t expect the Falcons run game to be much improved in 2021.
Then there’s a secondary, which allowed the most passing yards per game in the league in 2020. Atlanta addressed some of its deficiencies at safety by bringing in Duron Harmon and Erik Harris in the offseason. The Falcons also drafted former UCF standout Richie Grant in the second round.
Atlanta still has issues at cornerback as Kendall Sheffield had a tough 2020 year. A.J. Terell, a 2020 first-round pick, should continue to improve, though.
Just a few weeks ago, this line was at -350 so things may be looking up for the Falcons. Regardless, the Falcons are in a tough division with Tampa Bay and New Orleans and still have a lot of holes.
To Make the Playoffs (+210)
Ryan may be 36 but he seems to have at least a few good years left. Ryan led the league in completions last season for an Atlanta offense that ranked fifth in passing yards per game. Matty Ice finished with 4,581 yards, 26 TDs, and 11 INTs on 65% completions.
Sure, Jones is gone but Kyle Pitts has arrived. Pitts was drafted with the fourth pick, becoming the highest TE selection in NFL draft history. He was almost universally hailed as the most talented non-QB in the draft.
The versatile 20-year old was a unanimous All-American at Florida last season and won the Mackey Award as the country’s best TE. His stats in the COVID shortened season were eye-popping. Pitts totaled 770 receiving yards and 12 TDs in eight games.
He adds to a TE group that includes Hayden Hurst, who was one of the better TEs in 2020. Hurst, who previously spent two years with the Ravens, totaled six TDs and 571 yards on 56 receptions.
Calvin Ridley, the No. 1 wideout in the wake of Jones’ departure, had a breakout year in his third season. He is an indispensable part of Atlanta’s passing game and ranked fifth in the NFL in receiving yards in 2020, with 1374 and added nine TDs.
Russell Gage also stepped up in year three and finished second on Atlanta in receiving yards, with 786 receiving yards. Gage will continue to play a big role in a passing game that still has the potential to be among the league’s best.
In addition to a potentially explosive passing offense, the Falcons have arguably the best kicker in the league and the benefit of playing the third easiest schedule in the league based on 2020 records.
Younghoe Koo led the league in field goals made last season, with 37 and only missed two attempts. Koo was automatic from 50+ yards, hitting all eight attempts.
The schedule also greatly enhances Atlanta’s playoff chances. The Falcons get two games vs the Panthers in addition to winnable games vs the Eagles, Giants, Washington, Jets, Cowboys, Jaguars, and Lions.
It’s not far-fetched to suggest the Falcons can go 9-8 or 10-7 and make the playoffs as a wild card. Especially with the expanded playoff format that the NFL introduced last season which means that seven teams from each conference qualify.
Even a league-average running game would be a win for Atlanta after a brutal 2020 season on the ground. Mike Davis may prove to be capable of being a lead back but if he doesn’t there could be some tricks up Atlanta’s sleeves.
Qadree Ollison hasn’t gotten many opportunities in his first two seasons but could be ready for a larger role. If not, Atlanta still has special teams extraordinaire and RB/WR hybrid Cordarrelle Patterson and intriguing undrafted rookie Javian Hawkins.
There are still questions on defense but there are some signs that the Falcons could be improved. New defensive coordinator Dean Pees is one of just eight DCs to win a Super Bowl with two different teams, as Pees won with New England in 2007 and Baltimore in 2012. In 10 of his 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator his defenses have ranked in the top 12.
With three new safeties, in second round ballhawk Richie Grant, Duron Harmon, and Erik Harris, the secondary could be well on its way to improvement. The Falcons also added former Washington cornerback Fabian Moreau, who had five interceptions over the last two seasons.
With high offensive potential, a light schedule, and a defensive overhaul, the Falcons’ chances to return to the postseason for the first time since 2017 are solid. The Falcons are being given a better chance to make the playoffs now than a few weeks ago as the line has moved from +250 to +210. I tend to agree that the latter is more in line with realistic NFL predictions.
To Win the NFC South (+750)
Tampa Bay and New Orleans are major roadblocks to this happening. The defending Super Bowl champion Bucs are returning all of their starters and look primed for another title run.
This season is more uncertain for the Saints. Drew Brees hung up his cleats in the offseason and it is still unclear whether Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston will get the bulk of snaps. It’s certainly possible that the Saints take a step back.
The NFL division odds imply a well below-average chance of the Falcons winning the NFC South at 11.8 percent which says just as much about Atlanta as it does about Tampa Bay.
Tampa would need to have a deeply disappointing season to finish below Atlanta in the division and injuries would be the most likely culprit. Just look at what happened to the Cowboys last season after Dak Prescott went down, Washington came out of nowhere to win a weak NFC East.
The Falcons could pull off something similar but would need to hold up their end of the bargain. Atlanta’s passing game might need to be top five or something close to it to overcome its other shortcomings. Perhaps one of the backs on the roster stands out and gives Atlanta another weapon to keep defenses guessing.
Dees has worked wonders before in his lengthy coaching career and it is certainly possible that he ends up being the Falcons most important defensive addition. After all, the Falcons were way better on defense last season after Quinn was fired.
Pees, head coach Arthur Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone could usher in a new era of Falcons football. Fans will be hoping it’s one with fewer blown leads.
It’s unlikely that the Falcons finish on top of the NFC South, but not remotely out of the question.
To Win the NFC (+2500)
At 3.8% implied NFL Conference odds, Atlanta has slim odds to make a Super Bowl appearance. The Falcons are, however, five seasons removed from their tragic Super Bowl appearance.
Ryan and Atlanta led the Patriots 28-3 midway through the third and suffered a choke of historic proportions. New England went on to score 25 unanswered points to tie the game and won a fifth franchise Super Bowl in overtime.
Should the Falcons somehow win the NFC South and division rivals Tampa fail to make the playoffs, there is a path for this to happen. Outside of the Bucs, the NFC appears somewhat wide open. Only the Bucs, Packers, Rams, and 49ers have better than +1000 odds to win the conference.
There are questions surrounding all of the non-Bucs teams. Aaron Rodgers had one foot out the door until recently, the Rams lost RB Cam Akers for the season and the 49ers have been injury-plagued for the past two seasons.
Defense is the most obvious stumbling block to reaching this point. If the Falcons were to get it together on that side of the ball, watch out.
To Win the Super Bowl (+6600)
It is interesting that the Falcons have +2500 NFC odds and Super Bowl Odds comfortably more than double that, at +6600. The line has moved from +5000 to +6600 in recent weeks and it could potentially have to do with the uncertainty of the Falcons’ running game.
It could reflect how dominant some teams in the AFC are expected to be. The Ravens, Chiefs, and Bills are all popular Super Bowl betting picks and are poised for deep playoff runs.
The way that the Falcons roster is currently constructed, a dominant offense seems to be the best hope for this. Perhaps Pitts is one of the best TEs in the league immediately, Ridley takes another leap and the run game somehow sorts itself out.
More realistically, growing pains from a new coaching staff, a mediocre offensive line and a defense undergoing a bunch of changes will hamper Atlanta’s chances to make it this far.
In any case, Ryan may only have a few more chances at getting that elusive Super Bowl ring.