Next three games could tell Atlanta's story

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

It’s tempting to look ahead at the Nov. 2 game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints and call it the first truly meaningful NFC South game of the season.

It also could end up being inaccurate. There’s a chance the NFC South could be decided by then.

Look at what’s on the table between now and November. We’re about to find out if we’re watching a two-team race or one team lap the pack in a division where things usually go right down to the wire.

But this is shaping up to be a unique year in the NFC South. Barring near miracles by the Panthers and Buccaneers, you can go ahead and write them off now. John Fox’s team seems to be falling apart faster than you can say Bill Cowher, and Raheem Morris’ team never had a chance.

Now flip to the other end of the spectrum. You’ve got the Saints. They’re 4-0 heading into their bye weekend and they couldn’t be sitting any prettier. All those questions about their defense have been answered so thoroughly that the faithful in New Orleans are actually fretting about Drew Brees and the passing game after a couple of relatively quiet outings.

Relax, Brees and the passing game will be just fine.

The Saints can claim the early title as the NFC’s best team next week with a victory against the Giants, and they’ve got a trip to Miami after that. They’ve also got two games against Carolina and two against Tampa Bay. Throw in games with St. Louis and Washington and I’m going to go ahead and pencil the Saints in for double-digit wins.

Who’s going to catch them?

The only team with a shot is Atlanta and we really don’t know yet what the Falcons are all about. We’re about to find out, however. In the next three weeks, we’re going to find out if the Falcons were a one-year wonder or if they really have a shot at back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history and a chance to play with the Saints.

Coming off their bye, the Falcons are 2-1 and they head to San Francisco on Sunday. They host Chicago the following week and go to Dallas on Oct. 25.

They need to win at least two of those to even have a shot at staying close to the Saints. More importantly, they need to find their true identity in the next three weeks.

Right before the bye, the Falcons went up to New England and got whacked. There’s no shame in losing to the Patriots, but big flaws were exposed in that game and there were some other warning signs in the two victories.

The Falcons could end up being very good. But they also could turn out to be very mediocre. The next three weeks will tell a big part of the story. Here are five things the Falcons have to prove if they want to hang with the Saints.

1. The running game has to return. Michael Turner hasn’t looked the same as last year when he carried a league-high 376 times. Did the Falcons burn him out? Maybe. If that’s the problem, they need to get Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling more involved. But I think the real problem might be the offensive line. Let’s face it: these guys overachieved last year and left tackle Sam Baker’s the only blue-chip talent on this line. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has to get these guys to start playing above their heads again.

2. The secondary has to start making some plays. The Falcons were able to hide some of the weaknesses in their defensive backfield last year with good coaching and a strong pass rush. Atlanta went through the offseason without making any real talent upgrades that have shown up yet. That might be about to change. Cornerback Tye Hill, who was picked up in a trade right before the season started, probably got some extra tutoring in the bye week and he might be ready to step ahead of the undersized Brent Grimes. Rookie safety William Moore, who has been out with an injury, appears ready to play and he could challenge Thomas DeCoud for a starting job soon.

3. The defensive line has to step up. Defensive end John Abraham said that much this week when he said it was time for the line to "man-up." Sounds nice in theory, but do the Falcons really have the horses to do this? The loss of rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry to injury was huge, and there still hasn’t been a Jamaal Anderson sighting this year. Get ready to see a lot more of tackle Trey Lewis and end Kroy Biermann.

4. Roddy needs to return. The Falcons gave receiver Roddy White a huge contract after he held out in training camp. But that move hasn’t exactly been paying off. White hasn’t been putting up the numbers he did last year. He got the contract. Now he needs to show he was worth it.

5. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. If the Falcons can make it to the New Orleans game and get a win there, they’re in good shape. Their remaining schedule includes tough games against the Jets and Giants on the road and a home game with the Saints on Dec. 13. But there also are some games that should be easy, like the two with Tampa Bay and one with Carolina.

But all that potential hope in the second half of the season isn’t going to mean a lot if the Falcons don’t find themselves in the next three games.