When the Falcons returned from their extended West Coast trip, they arrived in Atlanta atop the NFC South with a 4-2 record, 1.5 games ahead of the pack. With six weeks of the regular season completed, here's a look at where the Falcons' division stands.
First Place: Atlanta (4-2, 2-1 in division)
Dan Quinn's second year as head coach has inspired a lot of optimism in his current team, its future and himself. The Falcons have shown they're a resilient club, one that won't let an opening day loss or a large deficit bring it down.
Atlanta's offense has emerged as one of the best — if not the best — in the NFL. QB Matt Ryan is first in the league in passing yards with 2,075, 287 more than anyone else. WR Julio Jones is leading the way at his position, too, thanks to his top-ranked 656 receiving yards. RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have 577 and 490 all-purpose yards, respectively, and a deep supporting cast — including Jacob Tamme, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, Austin Hooper and Aldrick Robinson — has provided Ryan with an array of options in the passing game.
Atlanta's has allowed 27.7 points per game, the seventh-most in the league, and 379.5 yards per game, the ninth-most. Nevertheless, a band of young defenders — Vic Beasley Jr., Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell, Keanu Neal, among others — has shown flashes of brilliance and injected a lot of promise into the Falcons' defense.
Second Place: Tampa Bay (2-3, 2-0 in division)
Despite an opening-day win at the Georgia Dome, the Bucs and head coach Dirk Koetter have endured their fair share of adversity. Tampa dropped three straight before beating Carolina in Week 5, and due to an early bye, has yet to have a chance to build on that victory.
The Bucs offense has struggled, averaging 18.8 points per game. QB Jameis Winston has completed 121 of 207 passes for 1,327 yards and nine touchdowns. The second-year pro has also had a difficult time taking care of the football: So far he has thrown eight interceptions and lost four of eight fumbles.
In just two games after being signed off the street, ex-Falcon Jacquizz Rodgers has emerged as Tampa's leading RB, notching 170 rushing yards on 43 carries. Doug Martin has been held to 85 yards on 25 attempts.
Only five clubs have allowed more points per game than Tampa's defense (28.4). LB Kwon Alexander is leading the way on D with 43 tackles (37 solo) and two sacks; Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy has a pair of sacks, as well.
Third Place: New Orleans (2-3, 1-1 in division)
After signing head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees to extensions, the Saints limped out of the gate, losing three-straight games to begin 2016. They've won two since, however, and are still in the mix.
New Orleans' offense remains its greatest strength. Brees and Co. rank first in passing yards per game (335.4), second in points per game (31) and second in yards per game (413.4). WR Brandin Cooks has used his electric speed to catch 25 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns; Michael Thomas has added 26 catches for 307 yards and three scores of his own.
The Saints' ground attack hasn't been particularly effective (they're averaging 78 rushing yards per contest) and their defense is last in the league in points allowed per game (33.6), but Brees and his talented group of receivers have kept New Orleans from falling out of contention.
Fourth Place: Carolina Panthers (1-5, 0-3 in division)
No one could have predicted the Panthers' disappointing start. One year after a Super Bowl appearance and near-perfect record, head coach Ron Rivera's team has plummeted to last place with four consecutive defeats — one of which took place at the Georgia Dome.
Cam Newton hasn't looked like his usual self, completing 104 of 180 passes for 1,296 yards and eight TDs to go along with six INTs thus far. The RB trio of Jonathan Stewart, Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker has been a bright spot, though, combining for 487 rushing yards and four TDs. Greg Olsen (610 receiving yards, two TDs) has been dominant, and Kelvin Benjamin, back from a season-ending injury in 2015, already has 394 receiving yards and four touchdown catches.
Without CB Josh Norman, Carolina's pass defense has become a genuine liability. This was evident when the Panthers travelled to Atlanta and watched Ryan and Jones have record-breaking performances through the air. Its front seven remains a strength, but with so much inexperience at cornerback, Carolina has had trouble forcing punts and creating turnovers.