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Wyche: How this Falcons season can go right, how it can go wrong

Steve Wyche breaks down how Arthur Smith's team can exceed, fall below expectations


As I get started, I want to give czar Scott Bair major props for keeping it 100. He just did his power rankings this week and had the guts – and football sense -- to rank the Falcons 23rd of 32 teams. That's behind the Bears, Arizona Cardinals and two teams from the NFC East, mind you.

That's about where I would list them, as well.

The fans whose fandom blinds them to reality will scream into their UGA framed laptops that we're crazy, and maybe so. It would be great if the team proves us wrong and we have to absorb the smoke.


The doubters will be angry, too, because finishing in position to pick ninth overall would force Atlanta to move draft capital to slide into the top four or five to likely select a quarterback, which is something on the horizon – and something the routinely pessimistic felt should have been done this past NFL Draft.

So, as Atlanta prepares to open the season Sunday against the Eagles, let's look at how it could end up closer to a playoff berth or how they could end up in a similar draft position to where it was this season – fourth overall.

The > than 23rd

The Falcons stay healthy: The frontline talent on both sides of the ball is good enough to rock with just about any team in the NFL. The offensive line and secondary have holes and a consistent singular pass-rush winner isn't there, but I could insert this sentence into projections for about 25 other teams.

The schedule: On paper, Atlanta should win three of its first five games against Philly in the opener, the Jets, and the Giants. The Buccaneers and Washington Football team are also mixed into that grouping. Although the Bucs will have had more than a week to prepare to face Atlanta in Week 2, this is a game where they could be caught slipping. The Falcons will play close to their best – most teams do against supposed juggernauts – and Tampa Bay has the Rams, Patriots and Dolphins following Atlanta. Should the Falcons pull the upset, the buy-in to new head coach Arthur Smith will be close to complete and confidence can carry a team a long way. It happens every season.

The defense: There were signs through the preseason that new coordinator Dean Pees has found ways to get players – like linebackers Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun, Mykal Walker and edge rusher Jacob Tuioti-Mariner – in position to make plays (we didn't see enough of Dante Fowler, who will be used a designated pass rusher, to come to any judgment). If Marlon Davidson can stay healthy enough to pair with or accent Grady Jarrett on the interior of the defensive line, the front seven will be significantly upgraded.

Playmakers: Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is among the top-tier of wideouts in the NFL and Russell Gage is a comer. The development of rookie tight end Kyle Pitts – especially what he showed in joint practices against the Dolphins – is very encouraging. Matt Ryan will be Matt Ryan if there is some balance to the offense. On defense, cornerback A.J. Terrell seems to have taken a significant step. If he can force four or five takeaways with interceptions or forced fumbles, he could emerge as the star of the team.

Opponents aren't what we think they'll be: The Saints, Cowboys, Dolphins and WFT all have questions. Other teams could sustain injuries. If, if, if and if.

The < than 23rd

The Falcons don't stay healthy: One injury at just about any position and things get precarious. If Ryan gets hurt, Josh Rosen or Feleipe Franks? How about Ridley or Terrell? Linebacker is about the only position where there is depth. There is some young talent in the secondary, like rookie Richie Grant, but he still has some growing to do.

The schedule: The first five games are crucial for momentum. If the Falcons don't emerge with a winning record, they will be climbing up Stone Mountain with grease on their hands and feet. Most of the starters didn't play in the preseason, as was the case with a lot of teams, and with a new staff, new scheme and new players, losing early could diminish faith in everything.

There's also this: The Week 6 bye is brutal. Teams hate early byes, and for a team like Atlanta trying to find its identity, the early breather could cause disruption. Not to mention, after the early bye, there are 12 consecutive games in a 17-game season where health is EVERYTHING. Oh, and those late-season games at San Francisco and Buffalo will be non-conference doozies.

The offensive line: Keeping Ryan upright is paramount, but if the line doesn't consistently run block and Atlanta finds itself routinely in second- and third-and-long, there will be flashbacks of 2020, which might blind even the most die-hard fan. The left guard position isn't ideally set – especially with rookie Jalen Mayfield opening there vs. the Eagles' Fletcher Cox, but there aren't a ton of quality guards available. That must be a radical change for GM Terry Fontenot, where his former team, the Saints, have been stacked at guard for years.

Playmakers (or lack thereof): Mike Davis, Ridley, Ryan, Pitts, Terrell, Jarrett, and Hayden Hurst. Falcons' fans know of them. Ask someone outside of Atlanta who the team's No. 2 wideout, ace cornerback or starting tailback is – even after hundreds of thousands of people just did their fantasy drafts – and you'll get some blank stares. Prime example: I've spoken to people for weeks about Cordarelle Patterson as the Falcons supposed big-play running back after Davis. The consensus opinion was, "haven't a few teams tried that already? How'd that work out?"

Opponents are what we expect or better: The Saints, Panthers, Giants, Dolphins, WFT, Cowboys are for real. The Bucs, Bills, 49ers are what we think they'll be. Will the Falcons be good enough to go nose to nose?

Here is the simplistic way of looking at things half full/half empty: The Falcons have no margin for error. If (there it is again) they stay within the margins, things could really break in their favor. I'll leave it there because we can all figure out what happens if anything goes awry.

Mike Davis and the Atlanta Falcons running backs prepare for Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Take a look at the best images in this gallery,


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