FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – NBC Sports' Peter King believes the Falcons can contend in both a very good NFC South and a very tough NFC. But for Atlanta to get back to the Super Bowl, King believes one important thing has to happen.
"I have very little question about the offense," King said. "My big question is can the defense, which has some players who look like they could be shutdown guys, develop into a premier defense. For the Falcons to get back to the Super Bowl, I think the defense has to be a shutdown defense."
The Falcons' defense became the first in Super Bowl history to start four rookies, and the unit has grown a lot since then. In 2017, Atlanta finished in the top 10 in both total and scoring defense for the first time since 1998, and the defense played a large role in helping the Falcons make the playoffs.
Atlanta begins its season on the road in Philadelphia in a matchup against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, who King believes is the class of the NFC heading into 2018. Behind the Eagles, King lists the San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Rams, the New Orleans Saints, the Green Bay Packers and the Falcons as teams that wouldn't surprise him if they went on a big run this year.
King: Tom Brady singled out one Falcon in particular
If King thinks the defense needs to take a step forward to help the Falcons return to the title game, it's no surprise the he picked defensive tackle Grady Jarrett as the player who needs to have a great year for that to happen.
"I'll never forget talking to Tom Brady after the Super Bowl," King said. "And Tom Brady talking about Grady Jarrett like he was the most dangerous player on the field that day for Atlanta. So, I watch him a lot when I watch the Falcons play. He is so disruptive. He's like, in the middle of the line, Aaron Donald junior.
"I think if he can crash the middle of lines, and he can make it possible for their edge guys to get home, I think he is an immensely important person for this team."
Jarrett became the first player ever to sack Brady three times in a Super Bowl, and it appears the experience left a bit of an impression on the Patriots quarterback.
King: A quarter of the Falcons' schedule every year poses a threat
Before the Falcons can start thinking about the playoffs, they have to make sure they make it out of the NFC South. Part of the reason King believes the defense will play a big role in how far Atlanta ultimately goes is because of some of the quarterbacks within the division.
"They need to play really really well in a very tough offensive division," King said. "If you play [Drew] Brees twice, and you're playing Cam Newton twice, you're playing one quarter of your schedule every year against quarterbacks who can put up 30 against anybody."
Atlanta wasn't among those teams who Brees or Newton put up 30 points against last season. In fact, they did fairly well to contain those two Pro Bowl quarterbacks. In the two games against the Saints, the Falcons gave up an average of 20 points and 310 yards. Against the Panthers, the Falcons allowed an average of 15 points and 289 yards, notably holding Carolina to just 10 points and forcing three interceptions in their playoff-clinching season finale.