Bradley’s Buzz: An emphatic vote for the Falcons as NFC South champs

Mark Bradley believes that Arthur Smith will lead the 2023 Atlanta Falcons to the NFC South title.

Credit: AJC photo/Miguel Martinez

Credit: AJC photo/Miguel Martinez

Mark Bradley believes that Arthur Smith will lead the 2023 Atlanta Falcons to the NFC South title.

Preseason power rankings show the same teams – Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles, 49ers and Bills – in the top five. That’s according to ESPN, NFL.com, Sports Illustrated, Pro Football Focus and Fox. I believe that’s called a consensus.

The same surveys have the Falcons ranked 28th, 17th, 21st, 27th and 22nd. I believe that’s called variance.

ESPN’s Football Power Index has the Falcons going 5-12 and finishing 5-1/2 games behind Carolina in the NFC South. NBC Sports’ Peter King has the Falcons winning the South.

The 2023 Falcons could do anything and not surprise us. They haven’t had a winning season since 2017. Their quarterback has started four NFL games. Then again, they’re in a division where the reigning champ went 8-9.

This being the NFL, quarterback is of outsize importance. ESPN ranks the Falcons 31st – there are 32 teams – at QB. It also ranks them No. 2 at running back, the position that isn’t supposed to matter, and among the top 10 at tight end, offensive line and defensive line.

Questions. When’s the last time you saw a bad team with a good O-line? When’s the last time you saw a bad defense with a good pass rush?

More questions. When’s the last time the Falcons HAD a pass rush? Those 20th-Century days of Chuck Smith, Lester Archambeau, Shane Dronett and Travis Hall? Remember where that team wound up?

The Super Bowl, I do believe.

Prediction: The Falcons will go 11-6 and win the NFC South. I don’t believe I’m being fanciful. Last year’s team was 4-4 entering November. It lost six of its next seven games. Five of those losses were by one score.

Those Falcons were outscored by 21 points on the season. Three teams made the playoffs with negative point differentials. Minnesota went 13-4 and was minus-3. If this team has proved anything under Arthur Smith, it’s that it can keep games close. It was 7-2 in one-score affairs in 2021; it was 5-8 last season. Its quarterbacks for most of those two seasons were Matt Ryan, no longer an NFL player, and Marcus Mariota, no longer an NFL starter.

Desmond Ridder might never be a great quarterback. This time a year ago, who would have deemed Jalen Hurts as such? He was a Round 2 draftee in 2020, a time when Carson Wentz was regarded as the franchise. (Today Wentz is employed by no franchise.) We ask again: If Ridder has big-time players around him, how good does he need to be?

Back to our first paragraph. Know how many games the Falcons are set to play against the NFL’s top five teams? Zero. The issue, at least in this regular season, won’t be if Ridder can outplay Hurts or Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow or Josh Allen. It will be if he can keep the Falcons afloat in a division that features new quarterbacks across the board.

With Tom Brady gone, there’s no chalk in the NFC South. Derek Carr is 32 and has started one playoff game. Baker Mayfield is on his fourth organization in two years. Bryce Young’s first NFL start will come Sunday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Believe it or not, but this division longest-standing head coach is A. Smith of Flowery Branch.

The Falcons have the NFL’s second-softest schedule. That’s mitigated by the other NFC Southerners having essentially the same schedule. The bigger determinant is that nobody in this division has more talent than the local crew. If Ridder isn’t an abject bust – I don’t believe he will be, and neither does A. Smith – this is a playoff team.

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