It doesn’t happen often, but NFL teams do make the leap from last place to first place from one year to the next. Washington did it in 2020, winning the NFC East (albeit with a 7-9 record) after a 3-13 finish in 2019. And in 2018, two clubs made the jump from fourth-place to first-place—the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans—those being the next most recent examples.
Recently, Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked the Atlanta Falcons as the second-most likely NFL team to make a similar leap this season, right behind San Francisco, which was ravaged by injuries to key players at critical positions in 2020.
Per Linsey, “there are a few things working in the Falcons’ favor when it comes to a potential worst-to-first swing in 2021.”
4 Reasons to be Optimistic About Atlanta’s Chances in 2021
First and foremost, the Falcons were “not as bad this past season as their record indicates,” writes Linsey. “Despite earning the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Atlanta actually finished the year 18th in PFF’s ELO Power Ratings,” which are based on PFF’s weekly player grades.
Second, the New Orleans Saints—who won the NFC South with a 12-4 record—are likely to regress, owing to the (likely) retirement of Drew Brees and a salary cap situation that looks to be the most challenging in the league entering 2021.
Moreover, the Falcons “have the firepower [on offense] to compete with teams,” notes Linsey, who says that “even if Atlanta drafts a quarterback in the first round, Matt Ryan is unlikely to go anywhere next season, and he showed in 2020 he can still play, posting an 83.1 PFF grade that ranked 12th at the position. A healthy Julio Jones paired with Calvin Ridley and an offensive line that has several younger players who should continue to improve is not a bad foundation around Ryan,” he concludes.
But arguably the biggest reason to be optimistic about 2021 is the promise of better coaching. New head coach Arthur Smith worked wonders with Tennessee’s top weapons while serving as offensive coordinator of the Titans in 2019 and 2020.
For example, running back Derrick Henry gained 1,540 yards and scored a total of 18 touchdowns in 2019 before adding 2,027 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns last year.
Meanwhile, quarterback Ryan Tannehill took over Tennessee’s starting job partway through the 2019 season and threw 22 touchdown passes against just six interceptions (117.5 rating), before following that up with an equally strong campaign in 2020, throwing for 3,819 yards with 33 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
Finally, Tennessee’s top receiving threat, A.J. Brown, caught 70 passes and scored 11 touchdowns in 2020, despite making only 12 starts.
“Add in Dean Pees out of retirement at defensive coordinator, and there are reasons to be excited about this new-look coaching staff,” reminds Linsey.
One Reason to be Pessimistic
Of course, Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers stand between the Falcons and an NFC South title—and Brady figures to keep his teammates hungry and driven going forward.
On the other hand, the Bucs will have the proverbial bull’s-eye on their backs all season long, as every team on Tampa’s schedule will want to give them their best shot. It also remains to be seen how Tampa’s roster will be impacted by free agency and the salary cap, not to mention how the team’s players will handle their newfound success.
As the old sports adage says: That’s why they play the games.
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