With the injuries to the Seattle Seahawks secondary, quarterback Russell Wilson will have to shoulder more of the load.
Midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl 51, the Atlanta Falcons had a commanding 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots and they appeared to be well on their way to winning their first Super Bowl Title. But since then the Falcons have failed to get out of their own way. Things would come apart for the Falcons rather quickly as they became the first team in the history of the Super Bowl to squander a 25-point lead as New England would rattle off 31 consecutive points to win in overtime 34-28. During the off-season the Falcons attempted to do and say all of the right things by claiming to have gotten over the loss in the Super Bowl. However actions speak louder than words which is evident by what the Falcons have been able to do on the football field during the 2017 National Football League season.
Atlanta won their first three games of the season, but since then they have dropped their last three. The Falcons have blown leads versus the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, while they were barely able to hold on against the Chicago Bears as well as the Detroit Lions. And in a rematch of Super Bowl 51 with the Patriots this past Sunday night, Atlanta didn’t have an answer as they lost 23-7. The Falcons are in third place in the NFC South, and although that they are still in the mix for a postseason berth, it will be difficult for them to get back there as this team is still seeking to find its identity.
Since 2008, Matt Ryan has been the Falcons starting quarterback and during that time he has ascended to being the best player at that position in the history of the franchise. Ryan’s record as the starting quarterback is 88-60, while last season saw him become the first player in the history of the franchise to be named as the MVP of the National Football League. But in spite of all of that Ryan entered last January with a career record of 1-4 in the postseason. Ryan appeared that he was well on his way to putting all of his prior postseason struggles behind him until several miscues which included a fumble that led to a Patriots touchdown late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 51 got the best of him. And as the Falcons are struggling here in 2017, it begins with the play of Ryan.
Whereas Ryan only threw 7 interceptions for all of 2016, he has already been picked off 6 times this season, while only throwing 7 touchdowns as he just seems to be out of sync which dates back to the Super Bowl loss. No Falcons wide receiver has more than one receiving touchdown this season which includes wide receiver Julio Jones who is a four-time Pro Bowler as he has 14 touchdown grabs to his credit over the last two seasons. And as the Falcons have yet to find a rhythm in their passing game, it is time for them to focus on running the football more.
In losing the Super Bowl to the Patriots, Atlanta failed to close out the game as they went away from their running game. In the loss, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman averaged 6.8 yards per carry, but he only received 11 carries. And had the Falcons consistently given Freeman the football in the second half of the contest, we would be referencing to this team as the defending Super Bowl Champs.
That abandonment of the running game was under former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan who is now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. But it has not gotten better for the Falcons running game under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
This year the Falcons are 14th in the National Football League in rushing, while Freeman only has 91 carries through six games. The Falcons are once again relying too heavily on the right arm of Ryan to get things done and they have been unable to sustain drives as they are tied with the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns for 29th in the NFL in regards to third-down conversions.
Defensively the Falcons are ninth in the National Football League in total defense, but they have lacked to the ability to make the big play. So far this season Atlanta has only been able to force three turnovers. Atlanta has also been unable to create a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks as they only have 14 sacks. Included in that futility for the Falcons is outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. who after leading the NFL in sacks last season with 15.5, has only managed to register 3 sacks this year.
After the Falcons collapse in the Super Bowl, the team decided not to retain defensive coordinator Richard Smith as well as defensive line coach Bryan Cox. Marquand Manuel who was the Falcons secondary coach last season has been promoted to being the team’s defensive coordinator this season. But under Manuel the Falcons defense has been unable to make those game-changing plays that championship teams find a way to get.
The schedule won’t be getting any easier anytime soon for the Falcons who will be on the road to face an overachieving New York Jets team this Sunday. The Falcons also have a road meeting with the Seattle Seahawks as well as their entire array of games with their divisional foes within the NFC South.
Coming into this season I expected the Falcons to be an up and down team as you simply cannot wash away the stench off of what happened in the Super Bowl in a few months. And in spite of that, Atlanta still has to accept the fact that their opponents are going to be gunning for them as they are still the defending NFC Champs.
For Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, he has done a good job in saying all of the right things in order to remain positive. But after his Falcons went out of their way to give the Patriots the Vince Lombardi Trophy, while he failed to get Atlanta to the playoffs in 2015 in spite of beginning the season with a record of 5-0, he has rapidly developed a reputation of being unable to finish what he has started. And Quinn has a very tough sell job ahead of him to get the Falcons back to playoffs, while also convincing people such as myself that what we saw in February is still not haunting this team.
X-Carolina Panthers 10-6
In 2015, the Carolina Panthers could do no wrong as they went 15-1 to earn their second NFC Championship in franchise history. But as good as 2015 was for the Panthers, 2016 was equally as difficult. The Panthers got off to a 1-5 start and were never able to recover as the team that was finding a way each week to win games in the previous year, was now going out of their way to lose. But in spite of going 6-10 last season, the Panthers appear ready to put all of that behind them and get back to being one of the better teams in the NFC.
It’s very simple for the Panthers as quarterback Cam Newton goes, so does the rest of the team goes. In 2015, Newton was the National Football League’s MVP as he accounted for 45 touchdowns. But last year saw Panthers opponents be able to keep Newton in the pocket more, and he was not as effective. Now as Newton is set to begin his seventh National Football League season, he has another obstacle to overcome. During the off-season Newton underwent shoulder surgery and the jury is still out on whether or not that he’ll be able to have the same zip on his throws.
But even with Newton under center, the Panthers bread and butter on offense is their rushing attack. Carolina made a stride by using their first-round pick in this April’s National Football League Draft on running back Christian McCaffrey. During McCaffrey’s collegiate career with the Stanford Cardinal, he was always a step away from making a big play. As a sophomore in 2015, McCaffrey set a single-season Football Bowl Subdivision record for all-purpose yards with 3,864. McCaffrey is the ultimate home run hitter as aside from being a dynamic runner, he can be a solid pass catcher coming out of the backfield, while also contributing on special teams with punt and kick returns. And Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula should have a field day in regards to finding ways to get McCaffrey the football as much as possible.
At 32-years of age, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen continues to chug along. Olsen is set to begin his seventh season with the Panthers, while he is coming off of his third consecutive campaign in which is he was able to gain at least 1,000 receiving yards. Olsen has also made the Pro Bowl in each of his last three years, while he has also developed into a leader for Carolina. Olsen can still split the seams with the best of them and the presence of McCaffrey should help him out as far as getting more single coverage.
And with McCaffrey on board, Panthers wide receivers Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin should have productive seasons as well as just like Olsen, they should see more single coverage. The Panthers also have a veteran offensive line which includes the Kalil Brothers of center Matt and his younger brother in left tackle Ryan who signed with Carolina this off-season after spending the first five years of his National Football League career with the Minnesota Vikings.
For Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, Steve Wilks has been on his staff since 2012, but now he gets his first chance to be the Carolina’s defensive coordinator and he inherits a veteran unit that is seeking to get back on track. The Panthers were 21st in the National Football League in total defense least year in spite of the fact that they were able to record 47 sacks and generate 27 turnovers.
The Panthers are happy to welcome back a familiar face who is seeking to finish his playing career in Charlotte. In 2002, the Panthers made defensive end Julius Peppers the second overall pick of the draft and he was seen as a building block for the franchise. Peppers spent the first eight years of his National Football League career with the Panthers which included him becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks with 81, while he helped them reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. And after Peppers split time over the last seven years with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, he is back now with the Packers to add to his 143.5 career sacks with are the fifth most in NFL history.
The return of Peppers will give the Panthers more depth on their defensive line as he’ll team with defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison. And as Wilks should be able to rotate his defensive ends more this year, it will give him the opportunity to keep his veteran pass rushers such as Peppers fresh.
Carolina also has one of the best linebacking cores in the National Football League as long as they are able to remain healthy. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the best at what he does which is evident by him being named the National Football League’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. However several concussions have forced Kuechly to miss time over the last two seasons and this is something that the Panthers medical staff should monitor. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis has spent his entire NFL career with the Panthers, and as he is set to begin his 13th season in Carolina, he is the heart and soul of this team. And then there is case for outside linebacker Shaq Thompson who is entering his third NFL as he is just scratching the surface on his athleticism which will keep him on the field due to his ability to play both the run and pass.
The Panthers secondary still has some question marks as this unit has not yet recovered after the organization parted with cornerback Josh Norman. And because of that the Panthers secondary will be relying on their front seven to generate enough pressure in order to give them the opportunity to make more plays.
The Panthers will enter this season with several “what ifs” which includes seeing how Newton will rebound after having off-season shoulder surgery. But Carolina should be able to benefit from the early portion of their schedule where six of their first eight opponents failed to make the playoffs in 2016. However second half of the season will see Carolina have two meetings with the Atlanta Falcons which should go a long way in decided who’ll win the NFC South.
Atlanta Falcons 9-7
The Atlanta Falcons are set to begin their 52nd year of existence and this could be the toughest one in the history of the franchise. After going 11-5 in the regular season in 2016, the Falcons scored a combined 80 points in two playoff games en route to winning their second NFC Championship in franchise history. The Falcons would then keep that momentum going in the Super Bowl as they built a 28-3 lead in the third quarter over the New England Patriots.
However as the Falcons appeared to be on cruise control to win their first Super Bowl Championship, the wheels began to come off as not only would they not score again, but they allowed the Patriots to storm back, force overtime, and ultimately steal the game. In the process the Falcons became only the third team in Super Bowl history to blow a 10-point lead and lose; however they were the first team to give up a double-digit lead in the second half more/less a 25-point advantage. And after Falcons owner Arthur Blank was on the sideline celebrating an expected victory, how will he and his organization rebound after being so close to football’s holy grail?
Dan Quinn is set to begin his third season as the Falcons head coach, but his staff will look very different heading into the new season. The Falcons will have a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian who replaces Kyle Shanahan as he moved on to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Sarkisian is best known for his respective tenures collegiately as the head football coach of the Washington Huskies and USC Trojans with his only previous venture into the National Football League being as the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2004. But now Sarkisian must get up to speed with the Falcons offense.
The Falcons still have quarterback Matt Ryan who enters the campaign as the National Football League’s MVP. Ryan completed nearly 70% of his passes, while he threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2016. Ryan is the Falcons all-time passer and his career record is 85-57. But what haunts Ryan is the fact that he has been unable to get it done in the postseason. Ryan is 3-5 in the playoffs, but more importantly he has lost twice in January while having home-field advantage, and he’ll now have last season’s collapse in the Super Bowl attached to him. Ryan is still one of the game’s best quarterbacks which will make him a fantasy football owners dream, however the Falcons will need his leadership skills more than ever this season.
Ryan also has the luxury of throwing the football to one of the best wide receivers in the National Football League in Julio Jones. In 2015, Jones led the NFL in receptions with 136 as well as receiving yards with 1,871. And at 6’3″, Jones is one of the most physical pass catchers in the game as he’ll continue to torment defensive backs.
But as good as the combination of Ryan and Jones can be, in order for the Falcons to once again be a force in the NFC, they must focus on rushing the football. Atlanta was fifth in the National Football League in regards to rushing the football. And in the Super Bowl, the Patriots didn’t have an answer for Falcons running back Devonta Freeman who averaged 6.8 yards per carry. However when it mattered the most, the Falcons went away from running the football which would ultimately lead to their demise.
Freeman is a durable ball carrier who is always one step away from making a big play. And although that Freeman has combined to carry the football 492 times over the last two years, he is still a guy that the Falcons need to feature in order to provide balance for their offense as well as taking some of the offensive burden off of Ryan; especially since Atlanta has an experienced offensive line that includes center Alex Mack.
Defensively the Falcons ran out of gas in the fourth quarter versus the Patriots and it showed as they were unable to generate a pass rush. The collapse in the Super Bowl would cost defensive coordinator Richard Smith and defensive line coach Bryan Cox their jobs as three quarters of the way through the game they each appeared to be on their way to getting promotions. Smith has been replaced by Marquand Manuel who after spending eight years as a defensive back in the National Football League, and the last five years as an assistant coach will now have his opportunity to be a play caller.
The Falcons had a solid pass rush in 2016, but they have improved by signing free agent defensive tackle Dontari Poe as well as drafting defensive end Takkarist McKinley. Poe spent the last five years as the anchor on the defensive line of the Kansas City Chiefs. Poe was a two-time Pro Bowl selection as a nose tackle, and now he will team with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to give Atlanta a stout interior defensive line that should be able to free up rushing lanes for the Falcon linebackers.
After a subpar rookie campaign in 2015, there were some people who felt that outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. would be a bust. In 16 games with the Falcons in 2015, Beasley was only able to record 4 sacks. But when Atlanta allowed Beasley to be an outside linebacker in 2016 as opposed to a defensive end, he was able to flourish which saw him lead the National Football League in sacks with 15.5. It will be tough for Beasley to follow 2016 up with another season like that, however his presence should free up other Falcons pass rushers such as defensive end Courtney Upshaw and McKinley.
The Falcons first three games of the upcoming season will be versus the NFC North which includes an NFC Championship Game rematch in Week 2 at home versus the Green Bay Packers. Weeks 7-9 will see Atlanta have a three-game road trip which includes a Super Bowl rematch versus the Patriots, while they’ll be in Charlotte in Week 9 to face the Carolina Panthers in a meeting that’ll go a long way to determine who will win the NFC South.
The Falcons have talent, but the stench of their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss still sits with this team.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7
It’s hard to believe, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the longest current playoff droughts in the National Football League. You have to go back to 2007 to find the last time in which the Bucs made the postseason, while they have not won a playoff game since Super Bowl 37 which was in January 2003. Since 2008, the Buccaneers have employed five different head coaches which is a sign of turmoil for any franchise. Dirk Koetter has one year under his belt as the head coach of the Bucs, and in the process he was able to guide Tampa Bay to their first winning season since 2010. However will Koetter be able to do something that hasn’t been done in Western Florida for a long time which is to lead the Buccaneers to the postseason?
A big reason why Koetter was named as the head coach of the Bucs last year was due to his relationship with quarterback Jameis Winston. As a rookie in 2015, Winston passed for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdown passes to be named as the National Football league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year with Koetter as his offensive coordinator. And under the tutelage of Koetter, Winston continued to grow as a quarterback last year as Tampa Bay was on the cusp of making the playoffs. Now as Winston is set to begin his third year in the NFL, he could be on the verge of doing some big things which not only means helping the Buccaneers make the postseason, but his strong arm and emerging leadership could put him in the conversation to be the league’s MVP.
Winston will have a bevy of quality pass catchers to throw the football to which includes wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans as well as tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. However Tampa Bay will need more out of their running game that was only 24th in the National Football League last year. Injuries are beginning to take their toll on veteran running back Doug Martin, while he’ll also miss the first three games of the upcoming season after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. However in the past NFL Draft, the Bucs did use a fifth-round pick on running back Jeremy McNichols who should split carries with Jacquizz Rodgers in Tampa’s backfield.
Defensively the Buccaneers were 23rd in the National Football League in total defense last year and they still need to find some semblance of order on that side of the football. And until they do, they are going to continue to rely on Winston and the offense to bail them out.
Three of Tampa Bay’s first five games in 2017 will be against playoff teams from last season which includes home meetings with the New York Giants as well as the New England Patriots who are the defending Super Bowl Champions. And as fast start for the young Bucs will be paramount if they are going to end their playoff drought, it won’t be easy.
New Orleans Saints 8-8
Four of the last five years have resulted in the New Orleans Saints failing to make the playoffs, and a big reason for that is their best player. In 2012, quarterback Drew Brees signed a five-year, $100 million deal to remain with the Saints, but in the process he hamstrung the team in regards to maintaining a quality team around him as his deal ate up a ton of salary cap space. And just when it appeared that the Saints were beginning to put it together once again, they traded one of their best players this off-season in wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots. But whereas the combo of Brees, general manager Mickey Loomis, and head coach Sean Payton have meant so much to the Saints for a very long time, will they be able to turn around the fortunes of this franchise and get back to the playoffs?
Brees continues to put up video game like numbers as he has led the National Football League in passing yardage in five of the last six seasons which includes the previous three. Brees is 38-years of age, but he is not showing any signs of slowing down as the Superdome is the perfect spot for him to sling the football around.
As far as not having a quality team around Brees, one thing that has hurt the Saints has been their inability to effectively run the football. 2016 marked the first time since 2006 that New Orleans had a running back gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground, and better things appear to be on the horizon. Since 2007, Adrian Peterson has been the best running back that the National Football has had to offer. Peterson’s 11,747 career rushing yards are the 16th most in NFL history and his 97 rushing touchdowns are tenth. However at the age of 32, the Minnesota Vikings thought that Peterson was done; especially since he was only able to appear in three games last year due to a bum knee.
But Peterson has always been a player who rises to the occasion. And the idea of Peterson playing in the same backfield with Brees, while also being able to split carries with running back Mark Ingram should spark him to give it one more push in regards to winning a Super Bowl Title.
The Saints will undoubtedly miss the contributions of Cooks which means that wide receivers Willie Snead and Michael Thomas will have bigger roles in the offense for New Orleans. However Brees is one of the better quarterbacks in the National Football League in regards to not only spreading the football around, but also making his receivers step up their game.
The Saints are coming off of another bad year on defense in the National Football League as they were 27th in total defense which included them only being able to tally 30 sacks. The Saints also surrendered 30 points on six occasions, and unless play makers such as strong safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Cam Jordan can consistently step up, it once again won’t matter if Brees passes for at 5,000 yards if the New Orleans defense cannot stop their opponents from scoring at will.
Three of the Saints first four games will be on the road which includes them beginning the season versus Peterson’s old team in the Vikings. The Saints must find a way to get off to a fast start; especially on defense if they want to make a postseason berth this year a reality.
First-Round Pick: Takkarist McKinley-Outside Linebacker-UCLA
Best Pick: Takkarist McKinley
The sting of the Super Bowl loss is still fresh for the Atlanta Falcons, but nobody is going to feel sorry for them in the National Football League. The Falcons have been attempting to put it all together this off-season in regards to getting back to the Super Bowl and this year’s draft saw them find an impact player early on.
The Falcons traded up in the first round of the draft with the Seattle Seahawks to select UCLA Bruins outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley. We all know about McKinley’s passionate speech that he gave following being drafted, but he plays with that same desire on the football field.
Last year McKinley led UCLA in sacks with 10 and he joins a Falcons team that needs a bookend edge rusher to offset outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. who led the National Football League in sacks last year with 15.5.
Other than getting McKinley, the draft process was rather pedestrian for the Falcons. But if McKinley can come in and have a strong impact for the Falcons defense, it will be a big positive.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
First-Round Pick: O.J. Howard-Tight End-Alabama
Best Pick: Round Five-Jeremy McNichols-Running Back-Boise State
After barely missing out on making the playoffs last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking to build off of that, and a solid showing at the 2017 National Football League Draft was just what the doctor ordered for them.
In the first round I expected the Buccaneers to focus on either the offensive line or defensive line. However Tampa Bay instead opted to give quarterback Jameis Winston another play maker to get the football to.
The Bucs drafted Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard who over the last two years emerged as a solid pass catching tight end. Howard has the ability to stretch the field from the tight end position and his presence in Tampa will mean less double teams on wide receivers Mike Evans and the recently acquired DeSean Jackson.
It’s too bad that the City of Tampa does not have an NBA franchise due to the fact that some of the Bucs players could suit up for them. The Buccaneers continued to bring more big and physical play makers in the third round of the draft when they selected Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Chris Godwin who will give Winston another solid option to get the football to in the red zone.
Tampa Bay has needed a leader on the defensive side of the football for some time now and they may have found one with a compensatory pick in the third round when they selected LSU Tigers middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Beckwith was LSU’s second leading tackler last year with 91, and he will provide the Bucs with knowledge and athleticism.
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht continued to add talent in the fifth round when he selected Boise State Broncos running back Jeremy McNichols. All McNichols did last year was to rush for 1,709 yards and score 23 rushing touchdowns. At 5’9″, McNichols gives the Bucs another undersized running running back to team with Doug Martin in their backfield, and he should be able to have an immediate impact.
The Bucs will enter next season as a trendy pick to make the playoffs and this draft class should be able to provide solid production for them.
New Orleans Saints
First-Round Pick: Marshon Lattimore-Cornerback-Ohio State, Ryan Ramczyk-Offensive Tackle-Wisconsin
Best Pick: Marshon Lattimore
With a pair of first round picks heading into the 2017 National Football League Draft, the New Orleans Saints had a solid chance to upgrade their roster, but unfortunately for the folks on the bayou, they missed the boat.
The Saints need all the help that they can get on the defense as they were 27th in the National Football League last season in total defense, while they were last in the league versus the pass. The Saints would use the 11th overall selection on Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Marshon Lattimore. And although that Lattimore’s arrival in New Orleans does fill a need, the Saints had other pressing issues which they failed to address.
The Saints need players that can rush the quarterback as defensive end Cameron Jordan led the team in sacks last season with just 7.5. The Saints would have been better served drafting Tennessee Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett who ended up being taken by the Philadelphia Eagles a few spots later.
The selection of Lattimore could have also been used on Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard as Saints quarterback Drew Bress has missed having a reliable go-to-guy in the passing game since tight end Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks.
And when the run on cornerbacks began later in the first round, the Saints had already selected one as they would use their second pick of the round on Wisconsin Badgers offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk who might be better served playing the right tackle position as opposed to the left.
The Saints would draft a defensive end, but not until their compensatory pick in the third round when they selected Florida Atlantic Owls defensive end Trey Hendrickson. And when it is all said and done, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis will look back and see an opportunity that was missed as in a division with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, New Orleans needs players that can rush the passer and put consistent pressure on these Pro Bowl caliber quarterbacks.
First-Round Pick: Christian McCaffrey-Running Back-Stanford
Best Pick: Christian McCaffrey
When the Carolina Panthers went 15-1 during the 2015 National Football League season en route to winning the NFC Championship, they were the bullies of the league. The Panthers were a very physical team on both sides of the football which showed up in their record. But when the Panthers sputtered last season as they went 6-10, they got away from their formula for success which started with a power rushing attack. But hope springs eternal and this off-season the Panthers are getting back to their bread and butter.
I expected the Panthers to select a running back early during the 2017 National Football League Draft, and with LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette off of the board, Carolina set their sights on Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey comes to the Panthers as a very talented athlete which included him being named as the Pac-12 Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2015 when he set a Football Bowl Subdivision record with 3,864 all-purpose yards. McCaffrey can do it all as he can be a running back, wide receiver, and kick/punt returner as he should have an immediate impact on the Panthers offense.
The second round saw the Panthers select Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Curtis Samuel who has breakout performer written all over him. Samuel led the Buckeyes in receptions (74) and receiving yards (865) last season in an offense that wasn’t pass oriented. And now with Samuel on the receiving end of passes from a former National Football League MVP in Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, along with playing alongside wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, Samuel could be ready to make a big contribution in Charlotte.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman would use the rest of the draft to add depth which included taking Texas A&M Aggies defensive end Daeshon Hall in the third round. And after finishing last in the NFC South in 2016, this draft class could help the Panthers get back to the postseason this year.
It’s been a few hours since we witnessed Super Bowl 51, and it’s still hard to digest. Prior to last night, no team in Super Bowl history had overcome a deficit of more than 10 points to win, but someone forgot to mention that to the New England Patriots.
The Patriots took the field at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texans led by a head coach in Bill Belichick and a quarterback in Tom Brady who combined to win four Super Bowl Titles together as they faced the upstart Atlanta Falcons who were looking for the franchise’s first title.
The Patriots were able to move the football in the first half, but they couldn’t get to the end zone as the Falcons defense forced two turnovers which led to 14 points. Defensively the Patriots didn’t have an answer for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan who appeared well on his way to winning the Super Bowl MVP after being named as the MVP of the National Football League on Saturday night. The Patriots defense also did not have answer for Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and wide receiver Julio Jones whose play making ability was on display for the world to see.
Late in the second quarter, Brady was intercepted by Falcons cornerback Robert Alford who returned it 82 yards for the touchdown to give Atlanta a 21-0 lead. Alford would take his time getting to the end zone as he was “hot dogging” it for the final 20 yards as he like most people though that the game was over.
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostowski would connect on a 41-yard field goal just before the first half ended to get New England on the scoreboard. But even with the longer halftime at the Super Bowl, it appeared that the Patriots weren’t going to be able to make enough adjustments in order to combat the speed of the Falcons.
Midway through the third quarter Ryan connected with running back Tevin Coleman on an eight-yard touchdown pass to give the Falcons the 28-3 lead. And at this point the Super Bowl all but appeared to be over as you began to wonder how a team that was led by Belichick with Brady at quarterback could be dominated in the fashion that they were.
Brady would finally get it going late in the third quarter when he led the Patriots on their first touchdown drive of the game as he found running back James White on a five-yard touchdown pass. But when Gostowski missed the ensuing extra point, it appeared to be another sign from the football gods that it wasn’t going to be in the cards to Patriots to claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions for a fifth time.
The Patriots defense would stiffen as their offense would continue to chip away. And with just under 10 minutes left in the game, Gostowski connected on his second field goal of the game to cut the Patriots deficit to 16 as the score was now 28-12. However the Patriots would still need to score two touchdowns, along with getting a pair of two-point conversions, while also needing to stop the Falcons explosive offense. All of these aspects seemed a bit unlikely for New England which led Falcons owner Arthur Blank to make the trek from his luxury box at NRG Stadium to the field in order to be with his team as it only seemed to be a matter of time before his team would be crowned as champions.
But with just under 9 minutes left in the game, Patriots linebacker Donta Hightower sacked Ryan and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Alan Branch which gave New England life. All of a sudden Brady was locked in and he was no longer missing wide open receivers. Brady’s passes were crisp and on target as the Patriots offensive line was able sure up their blocking, while his receivers were doing everything necessary in order for New England to succeed. And with just under six minutes left in the game, Brady connected with wide receiver Danny Amendola on a five-yard touchdown pass, while White scored on the two-point conversion to cut the Patriots deficit to 28-20.
However the Patriots defense would have to step up once more. The Falcons would begin to drive the football as they went back to the combo of Freeman and Jones as they moved the football to the Patriots 22-yard line. And at this point a field goal would have more than likely iced the game for Atlanta. But the Falcons drive would stall when Ryan was sacked by Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers, and a holding call was assessed on offensive tackle Jake Mattews. Now instead of the Falcons making plans to celebrate their first Super Bowl Championship, the butterflies began to rumble in their stomachs as they had to punt the football back to Brady.
Brady had 91 yards to go with under four minutes left in the game in order to lead New England on a game-tying drive, and if he did it, his legacy as the greatest quarterback ever would be cemented. Brady would continue to be locked in against the Falcons defense which at this point was running on fumes. And when wide receiver Julian Edelman made a spectacular catch on a pass that was initially deflected, you knew that the momentum had completely shifted to the Patriots. Brady would lead the Patriots down the field with precision and with 85 seconds remaining, White would score on a one-yard run to make it 28-26. However with New England needing to score another two-point conversion, the odds were in favor of the Falcons defense. But Brady would spread his receivers out in the formation which paved the way for him to find Amendola on a screen pass which knotted the score at 28.
Ryan and the Falcons would get one more chance in order to attempt a game-winning drive. But at this point Mr. Momentum was wearing a white jersey as Blank had a front row seat to watch his team completely come apart at the seams.
Thus we would be treated to the first overtime game in Super Bowl history, and when the Patriots won the coin toss, they and the Falcons alike knew that the game was over.
Like a surgeon, Brady would continue to slice up the Falcons defense as he drove the Patriots down the field. And when a pass interference was called on Falcons outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell for his coverage of Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett which put the football at the Atlanta two-yard line, the final nail was being hammered in their coffin.
Two plays later White would score the game-winning touchdown, and even a booth review could not save the Falcons as they were ready to go into the history books as the team that blew a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl.
For three quarters Falcons head coach Dan Quinn had done everything right as he appeared to be the man who was putting an end to the Patriots dynasty while turning Belichick into a mere mortal in the process. But by the fourth quarter Quinn’s defense had run out of gas. For the game the Patriots offense ran 93 plays compared to just 46 for Atlanta as New England possessed the football for more than 40 minutes. And as the Falcons defense was all over Brady for the first three quarters like ugly on an ape, he was made of teflon in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The Falcons will head into the off-season in a fashion that will be extremely tough. Getting over this Super Bowl loss will be more excruciating than their 34-19 loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 33, or their 28-24 loss at home to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship Game as this game was all but over. This will not only sit with the Falcons for the next seven months, but for the rest of their lives as this will indeed be difficult to rebound from. Ryan spent this entire National Football League season washing away the ills of his reputation of being unable to win the big game, but now he’ll be remembered as the quarterback that was unable to hold a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is set to become the new head coach of the 49ers, and he was looked at as one of the up and coming bright minds on offense in the NFL. However Shanahan will now have to answer questions as to why Jones only had 4 receptions in the Super Bowl, along the fact that he stopped going to Freeman.
The Falcons had a front row seat to see why many people regard Belichick as the best head coach in National Football League history with Brady being the best signal caller to have ever done it as Atlanta’s attempts to stop them were the equivalent of bailing out water on the Titanic once it struck the iceberg.
Even when things were extremely bleak for the Pats, the mood never changed on their sidelines as they simply continued to do everything possible in order to win. And as the Patriots pass rush could not get to Ryan in the first half, they all of a sudden got into a rhythm which led to him hurrying his passes while he was being introduced to the turf which paved the way for New England’s epic comeback.
So once National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, it all but solidified the legacies of Belichick and Brady. After the Spygate and Deflategate scandals, the legacies of Belichick and Brady were tarnished. But each time that the NFL comes down on the Patriots, they emerge smelling like a rose.
This Super Bowl Championship wasn’t supposed to happen after Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season, while the Pats were stripped of their first-round pick in 2016. Tight end Rob Gronkowski only appeared in nine games due to a back injury, but New England continued to chug along. The Patriots would go 3-1 without Brady and 11-1 with him. And as Belichick attempted to down play Brady having extra motivation this season, it was hard for anyone to deny after what we saw last night.
Now the Patriots have joined the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys with five Super Bowl Championships which barely trails the six of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Brady and Belichick are each in a class of their own as no head coach or quarterback were able to win five Super Bowl Titles prior to last night. Brady and Belichick have changed the game as it will be hard for anyone to duplicate what they’ve accomplished.
At the age of 39, the timing is perfect for Brady to walk away from the National Football League as he could exit stage right just like quarterback Peyton Manning did last February as a Super Bowl Champ. But unlike Manning, Brady’s physical skills have not diminished as he could continue to rewrite the record books which has already seen him become the only four-time Super Bowl MVP.
And for all of those folks that may have kept watching the Super Bowl for the sole purpose of seeing the Patriots be taken behind the woodshed, it was not to be as they gave the Falcons a brutal lesson in perseverance while giving us a Super Bowl that people will remember for a very long time.
The 2007 National Football League season was as forgettable as can be for the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons saw their franchise quarterback Michael Vick arrested for his role in a dog fighting ring. 13 games into the season, Bobby Petrino would resign as the head coach of the Falcons before even finishing a year on the job in order to go to the collegiate ranks and become the head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Falcons would finish the season with a record of 4-12 as they had to face the reality that they were now rebuilding.
After the season Falcons team president and general manager Rich McKay would rescind his post as the team’s GM. The Falcons would then hire Thomas Dimitroff who was the New England Patriots director of college scouting to be their new general manager as he would join McKay and team owner Arthur Blank to form the brain trust that would work towards turning Atlanta into a contender.
The Falcons first order of business was to find a head coach as they hired Mike Smith who had spent the previous five years as the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The next order of business for the Falcons was to find a new franchise quarterback. And on the heels of the Falcons 4-12 campaign, they entered the 2008 National Football League Draft owning the third overall selection. The Falcons would promptly select quarterback Matt Ryan who entered the NFL as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year after he helped the Boston College Eagles reach the conference title game for the first time in school history. And Ryan would provide immediate dividends for the Falcons at the quarterback position as he provided them with leadership.
Ryan was named as the Falcons starting quarterback coming out training camp and his first pass in the National Football League went for a touchdown as he connected with wide receiver Michael Jenkins for a 62-yard TD. Ryan would be named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year as he helped Atlanta reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
In four of Ryan’s first five seasons with the Falcons, the team would make the postseason which included them having home-field advantage on two separate occasions. But over that stretch the Falcons were only able to win one playoff game while they were unable to advance to the Super Bowl. Ryan and Smith had developed the moniker of not being able to win the big game. And after the Falcons had consecutive losing seasons in 2013 and 2014, Smith was fired.
The Falcons would head to the Pacific Northwest in order to find their next head as they hired Seattle Seahakws defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. The Falcons were hopeful that Quinn could bring some of the magic that led to the Seahawks winning Super Bowl 48 as Atlanta was looking to get back on track.
In 2015, the Falcons would begin the season with a record of 5-0, but they would falter down the stretch as they finished 8-8 and missed out on the playoffs. However where some of the right buttons weren’t pushed for the Falcons last season, the same cannot be said this time around.
After the Falcons lost their season opener at home to the Bucs, they would reel off four consecutive wins before they lost their next two. The writing was on the wall for the Falcons to take another dive when they were 4-3, but they would win seven of their final eight games to win the NFC South for the first time since 2012, while also securing a first-round bye. And even though that the Falcons had a new head coach, the moniker of being unable to win the big game hung over their heads heading into the playoffs.
In the divisional round the Falcons would welcome the Seahawks to town as this was the only team that Ryan had a playoff victory over. The Seahawks would take the opening kickoff and march down the field for a touchdown to give them the early lead on the road. However the Falcons would immediately respond as Ryan orchestrated a touchdown drive that ate up more than seven minutes of game clock. And when Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was tackled in his own end zone for a safety in the second quarter, the flood gates opened up for the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta would rattle of 19 consecutive points which included scoring a touchdown to end the first half along with one to begin the third quarter. And before you knew it the Seahawks were getting the brakes beaten off of them as they would lose 36-20.
But when the Green Bay Packers would knock off the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, it meant that there would be one final football game at the Georgia Dome as the Falcons would host the NFC Championship Game for just the second time in franchise history. And the Falcons would have to do it against the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers who entered the NFC Championship Game as the hottest quarterback in football, while he got the best of Ryan and Atlanta in a decisive 48-21 victory over Atlanta in the divisional round en route to winning Super Bowl 45. However this time around Rodgers and the Packers would have to face a different Falcons team.
In Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, the Falcons received the opening kickoff and Ryan immediately led them down the field on an 80-yard touchdown drive that was capped off when he found wide receiver Mohamed Sanu on a two-yard touchdown pass to give them the early 7-0 lead.
Rodgers would get his chance to respond, but the Falcons defense was all over him like ugly on an ape, and before you knew it, Ryan was getting into a rhythm. Ryan led the Falcons on three touchdown drives in the first half as he connected on a pair of TD passes while calling his own number on another. But even with Ryan’s stellar first-half performance, the big shocker was that Atlanta’s defense had stifled Rodgers as the Falcons took a 24-0 lead to the dressing room.
And just when you expected the Falcons to falter in the second half while Rodgers would once again rise to the occasion to orchestrate another thrilling Packers comeback, that wasn’t the case as Atlanta would dictate the pace and easily win the game 44-21 for their second NFC Championship in franchise history.
For Ryan, he is in the midst of having an MVP caliber season as during the regular season he passed for 4,944 yards, while throwing 38 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions. But all that Ryan had done in the regular season would not have mattered if he hadn’t been able to lead his team to the Super Bowl, while also erasing the moniker of his inability of being unable to win the big game.
And for McKay and Dimitroff, they are finally vindicated for moving up 21 spots in the first round of the 2011 National Football League Draft in order to select wide receiver Julio Jones sixth overall. Jones has been a stud for the Falcons which included him leading the NFL in receiving yards in 2015 with 1,871 which is the second most in a single-season in league history. But Jones really showed his grit this season as he battled through a turf toe injury while he stilled managed to have 83 receptions and 1,409 receiving yards.
Jones did this primarily in the face of double and triple coverage which opened things up for other Falcons receivers such as Sanu who in his first year in Atlanta after being a member of the Cincinnati Bengals for the last five years, had a career-high in receptions with 59.
But the biggest thing for the Falcons this season is that they are a complete team which is credit to their brain trust in the front office. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are one of the best tandems at the position in the league as they combined for 1,599 rushing yards and 19 yards this season. The Falcons offensive line was solidified last off-season when the signed center Alex Mack. In seven years with the Cleveland Browns, Mack was a four-time Pro Bowl selection as he was one of the best centers in the National Football League, and his addition in Atlanta gave the Falcons something that they have lacked for a very long time which is an anchor on their offensive line.
The Falcons selected outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. in the first round of last year’s draft. And after Beasley had a disappointing rookie campaign as he only tallied 4 sacks, Quinn switched him from defensive end to outside linebacker. All Beasley did this season was to lead the National Football League in sacks with 15.5 sacks as every opposing offensive coordinator in the league must now account for his skills as an edge rusher.
The Falcons still have to get one more victory this season in order for them to claim their first Super Bowl Championship in franchise history, and it won’t be easy as they’ll the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady. Ryan has already defeated a pair of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the playoffs, and he’ll need to get a victory over another in Brady if wants to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta. But Ryan and his teammates have now taken their place alongside “The Dirty Birds” who came out of nowhere to win the NFC Championship in 1998.
Brick by brick Blank, McKay, and Dimitroff have put this Falcons team together that has become a band of brothers and as people continues to write them off, they are simply doing it against all odds.