Analyst Aaron Schatz’s DVOA forecast predicts the Falcons will win the NFC South and gives them a 73% chance of making the playoffs. That’s a very rosy projection, but it’s not outlandish. The Bucs won the division with a losing record in 2022, and the South looks down again. Bookmakers are giving the Falcons 2-1 odds to win the division, behind the Saints (even).
I wouldn’t take that bet. The Falcons’ over/under win total is 8.5 games. Put me down for the under. DVOA sees the Falcons being average on offense with a top-10 defense. I see a team that doesn’t have enough talent to avoid playing a lot of close games, which is the only sure way to be a consistent winner in the NFL.
There’s a lot of luck involved when the score is close. Outcomes tend to be volatile. The Falcons were 6-2 in games decided by a margin of eight points or less during Arthur Smith’s first season as coach. They were 4-6 in those games in 2022.
The Falcons were better in 2022 than they were in 2021. They still weren’t good enough to win more than two games by a margin of more than a touchdown. And one of those decisive victories came against the Bucs when they didn’t care about the outcome.
The Falcons might be better in 2023, but not good enough to turn 7-10 into 10-7 or even 9-6. One counterpoint to that view is that the Falcons have more talent. They finally had enough salary-cap space to sign some significant veteran free agents this past offseason.
The best new additions play defense: safety Jessie Bates III and defensive linemen Calais Campbell and David Onyemata. There’s no elite pass-rusher among them, but there is better depth. The Falcons used their top draft pick to select big-play threat Robinson. Those players join a core of holdovers led by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, cornerback A.J. Terrell, tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Drake London.
Yet the talent influx lifts the Falcons’ talent level only from subpar to OK. That reality is reflected by the Pro Football Focus positional rankings.
The Falcons’ offensive line is ranked second-best in the NFL. The running backs are ranked seventh. The four other position groups – wide receiver, defensive line, linebacker and defensive back – rank 23rd or worse. Maybe those assessments are off-base. If not, then the Falcons are going to try to win with a one-dimensional offense (again) and a defense that has bottom-third talent at every level.
And that offensive line ranking assumes that the Falcons will be run-heavy again. Can the group pass block? The Falcons already were good at running back with Cordarrelle Patterson. How much better can the group get with Robinson?
Then there’s the quarterback. Ridder started four games last season. Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot have praised him for his poise, maturity and game management. They didn’t say much about his passing. There wasn’t much good about it.
Smith protected Ridder with a run-heavy scheme and lots of play-action passes. Ridder still ranked 30th of 32 starters in the Expected Points Added metric. I liked Ridder as a college prospect, and it’s reasonable to project he’ll be better in Year 2, but he’s got a lot of work to do to become an NFL-level starter.
It’s also not clear that Ridder can affect the running game in the same way as Marcus Mariota did in 2022. Say what you want about Mariota’s lack of passing accuracy, but his running ability and veteran savvy made the offense work. Ridder has some of the former and can’t develop the latter without experience.
The sorry state of the NFC South might be the strongest argument for the Falcons beating expectations. Hanging their hopes on division rivals being bad is not a good situation. It may not even turn out that way.
The Saints have the best quarterback in the division, Derek Carr, and a good defense. The Bucs will be better than expected without Tom Brady, who wasn’t very good in his (hopefully) final NFL season. There’s a small gap between the Falcons and Panthers. To wit: Carolina is just a 3.5-point underdog for the season opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium despite injuries to a thin group of wide receivers.
The Falcons need to win that game to maintain the good vibes generated by a fresh season. The Packers are in town for Week 2. That’s a toss-up. The Falcons are at the Lions for Week 3 and play the Jaguars in London for Week 4. The Lions and Jaguars both are favored to win their divisions.
Predictions are notoriously difficult to get right in the NFL, which engineers parity like no other league. Luck plays a big role, especially with injuries. My doubts about the Falcons could prove to be unfounded. If so, I’ll take my lumps. If I’m right about the Falcons, then their playoff drought will continue for a sixth consecutive season.