If the Falcons are going to make a trip back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, they will have to navigate one of the toughest divisions in the NFL.
With the addition of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and a strong draft class, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have vaulted into the conversation of top contenders for a championship. They've joined the New Orleans Saints, who have been among the best teams in the league the past few seasons, as a team considered among the elite in the NFC.
"Any time you add a guy who has won that many championships, won that many games, you know he's going to be tough to beat," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said of Brady joining Tampa Bay. "Their team was tough last year. Their defense was really, really good, really tough to go against. I expect them to be a really good, tough competitor, same with New Orleans, same with Carolina. The division has been tough for a long time."
The Falcons went 4-2 last season against NFC South teams, and the division has been a top focus for the team under Dan Quinn. But, as last season proved, it takes more than a winning record within the division to continue playing into January.
It's not just the Falcons' division that looks daunting, either. Atlanta has one of the toughest schedules in the league in 2020, and the Falcons will need to be sharp right out of the gates with back-to-back games against the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys. Slow starts have plagued the Falcons the past two seasons, but a strong finish to the 2019 season may have provided a blueprint moving forward.
During their 6-2 finish the Falcons beat both the Saints and the San Francisco 49ers on the road, proving capable of beating even the very best teams in the league. In tackling their own division as well as teams like the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, the Falcons will need to be on top of their game week in and week out.
"The mindset that we have to have is we have to have ourselves prepared and ready to go, because I have the belief that we're right there with all of those teams," Ryan said. "They have to deal with us as well. We create a number of issues for these teams to go against. If we play our best, I think we can go toe to toe with anyone."
By adding former Rams Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler this offseason, the Falcons believe they've taken steps towards improving their run game and pass rush. With Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, the Falcons again shouldn't have any problems moving the ball through the air, and even a little improvement along the offensive line should make them even more dangerous in that regard.
If Atlanta takes a step forward in a number of key areas, the Falcons have enough talent on the roster to achieve their goal and make a return to the postseason. Who knows, perhaps they will prove skilled enough to not only weather a difficult division and schedule but to roll through it – Ryan certainly has the confidence that the Falcons are capable of doing just that.