The Atlanta Falcons finished the first half of the season with 4-4 record. Here's a look at how they have fared and what's ahead:
First-half rewind: In all fairness, the Falcons' first half could be viewed as "incomplete" based on how injuries set them back. Six starters were placed on injured reserve, including Pro Bowlers Devonta Freeman, Keanu Neal and Deion Jones. Playing without Neal, Jones and Ricardo Allen, not to mention without star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett for a couple games, left a gaping hole in the defense. And not having a healthy Freeman obviously impacted the running game. Still, quarterback Matt Ryan managed to put up great numbers and keep the Falcons afloat. Grade: Average
What has to happen for the Falcons to make the playoffs? The Falcons need to play flawless football, at least on the offensive side, to contend for a wild-card berth. They have the weapons to outscore any team, despite elite receiver Julio Jones scoring just one TD thus far. There seems to be better chemistry between the offensive players and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. But the Falcons need to play as well offensively on the road as they do at home, with five of the final eight games in opposing stadiums. Plus they need the other leading NFC teams to trip up along the way.
MVP: Ryan. No doubt. He's playing at an MVP level and is on pace for more than 5,000 passing yards. In his first 301 pass attempts this season, Ryan threw 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He completed more than 74 percent of his passes in five of the first eight games. And he's continued to show the ability to make plays out of the pocket for those who question his athleticism.
Biggest surprise: Maybe this wasn't so much of a surprise, but rookie Calvin Ridley came out of the gates on fire with six touchdowns in his first four NFL games and a team-leading seven touchdown receptions through eight games. Yes, some of that can be attributed to the added defensive attention drawn by his teammate Jones, but no one can deny just how fluid a route runner Ridley is and how he already looks mature beyond his years. And he's only going to get better the more comfortable he gets with the offense, so watch out. Also, fellow rookie Ito Smith has been a pleasant surprise with his team-leading four rushing touchdowns.
Hurdle to overcome: The depleted defense has shown improvement in recent weeks with the steady play of Jarrett and the emergence of guys such as Damontae Kazee, Foye Oluokun, and Jack Crawford, but the Falcons still surrender 412.8 yards and 28.25 points per game. The good news is the Falcons are expected to get the Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jones back from foot surgery by the Dallas game (Nov. 18), which should provide a significant boost. The defense really needs one-time sack champ Vic Beasley Jr. to be a dominant force again as a pass-rusher. The Falcons are adding some pass-rush help by signing Bruce Irvin to a one-year deal, per Adam Schefter.