Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Let's go ahead and get this out there. The Atlanta Falcons are playoff contenders.
The team that was supposed to be the worst in the NFL is not. At the halfway point, their 5-3 record is better than Indianapolis, Minnesota, Green Bay, San Diego and New Orleans, teams that were talked about as Super Bowl contenders back in the summer.
Sure, the kids from Peachtree Street are young, they don't have the most talented roster in the league and they're led by a guy who had never been a head coach at any level and, as recently as a year ago, was an obscure assistant for Jacksonville. They've also been very lucky at times, like drawing Detroit and Kansas City in two of the first three weeks.
But let's stop looking for ways to shoot holes in the Falcons' very impressive half season. Let's look at why they are where they are and how they can get even better. We all know plenty about rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner. They each have a shot at the Pro Bowl, but what we see them do on Sundays doesn't tell the whole story.
The Falcons have one of the best coaching staffs in the league and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave deserve as much credit for what Ryan and Turner have done as the players do. And don't forget an offensive line that's not especially talented, but has been coached to perfection by Paul Boudreau, one of the league's most underrated offensive line coaches.
It's tempting to not even think about Atlanta's defense because Ryan, Turner and receiver Roddy White are the stories. But you wouldn't be telling the whole story of the Falcons if you ignored the defense. Veteran John Abraham, who got his 10th sack Sunday, is a candidate for defensive player of the year, rookie linebacker Curtis Lofton is a perfect fit in Smith's system and could be a candidate for NFC defensive rookie of the year. Oh, and how about that secondary that was supposed to be without any talent after unloading former first-round pick DeAngelo Hall in the spring?
It's held up quite nicely.
The Raiders threw for 31 yards -- all day. Ryan passed for 220 against a defense that includes Hall.
Yes, the schedule is about to get a lot tougher. The Falcons host New Orleans next and follow that with two more home games (Denver and Carolina). They go on the road to San Diego and New Orleans. They host Tampa Bay before making their final road trip to Minnesota and finishing the season at home with St. Louis.
Think about it? At 5-3, the Falcons could be in the playoffs if they win four or five of their next eight games. Yeah, it would help if they won their first NFC South game and a couple more.
When you look at Atlanta's schedule, it's a pleasant change from the preseason. Back then, the argument was if the Falcons could squeeze out three or four victories. Nowadays, the question is: How many more wins do the Falcons need to reach the playoffs?