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NFC South Roundtable: Can the Wounded Birds Fly Again?

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The Atlanta Falcon’s 8-8 record last season was their best in three years (4-12 in 2013, 6-10 in 2014). But as we all know, every new NFL year brings new hopes for all fanbases and in “Rise Up” land, they think they might just get back contending for the NFC South title in 2016. The question is: what will it take for that to happen?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Part Three of our NFC South Roundtable and today, we’re turning our attention to the hated Atlanta Falcons. Although, as of late, the Falcons haven’t really given Saints fans a lot of heartache. Atlanta’s 8-8 record last season was their best in three years (4-12 in 2013, 6-10 in 2014). Despite finishing one game better than the Saints in 2015, New Orleans still swept their bitter division rival. But as we all know, every new NFL year brings new hopes for all fanbases and in "Rise Up" land, they think they might just get back to contending in the NFC South in 2016. Jeanna Thomas of The Falcoholic would like to know what it would take though, so here’s her question for us:

Jeanna: I'd like to know what each of you thinks Atlanta needs to improve to be competitive in this division this season.

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JR Ella - Canal Street Chronicles: Despite the fact that they won only two of their last nine games, we tend to forget that the Atlanta Falcons finished with a respectable 8-8 record last season, following a 4-12 and a 6-10 year. And before you think that the Falcons early wins were only a product of an easy schedule, during their five-game winning streak to open the 2015 season, Atlanta beat eventual playoffs teams like the Houston Texans, the Washington Redskins and a good New York Giants squad.

However, the Falcons were doomed by uncharacteristically poor play from Matt Ryan. In 2015, the Falcons’ quarterback recorded a QB rating of 89.0, which ranked 20th in the NFL. A big factor in this low rating is the fact that Ryan threw 16 interceptions (tied for third-most in the NFL last season) and each pick seemed to happen at the worst possible moment and with the worst possible outcome for the Falcons. While being counted on and paid like a top 5 quarterback, Ryan clearly had quite the underwhelming season in 2015. And before you are tempted to put a big part of the blame on the Falcons’ offensive line, Ryan was sacked 32 times last season, which ranked 15th in the league, pretty much right at the league’s average.

The main thing that has to improve next season for Atlanta to get back to being competitive in the NFC South is the play of the face of the franchise. Displaying better synergy with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan couldn’t hurt either. Although the Falcons’ defense got quite a bit better from 2014 to 2015 (32nd to 22nd in defensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders), in 2016 the dirty birds will only go as far as Matt Ryan takes them.

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Brian Beversluis - Cat Scratch Reader: I believe that success in a quarterback driven division like the NFC South comes from the defense. Each team is going to have some success scoring simply because they field a franchise quarterback and have surrounded them with weapons, it's a given that they will score points throughout the season, so defensively the teams with the better defenses will typically do better, even if their offense as a whole isn't necessarily on the same level as their opponent. You build your defense to defeat your main competitors, namely your division rivals. And I think the big one that will get Atlanta over the hump is the pass rush.

They did a good job adding pieces this offseason. Guys like Courtney Upshaw, De'Vondre Campbell, Deion Jones, and others show a marked focus on improving the front seven. As you've likely seen, the Panthers have won the NFC South with a strong defensive line that keeps their speedy linebackers free of blocks, which allows them to run all over the field and make plays in space.

Now, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are very unique talents that you can't always replicate. That said, even when AJ Klein, a promising but perennial backup, and Shaq Thompson, a rookie who didn't have a set position prior to the draft, had to step in they still made tons of plays. And that comes from a strong defensive line, which really thrived because of the strong interior presence of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. You can do a lot about strong outside rushers, but when you have push from the inside, it not only ruins protection schemes but I can also destroy the run. If the Falcons can find that interior presence, whether it is from defensive tackles or stout linebackers, it will mess up offensive game plans and allow some of their new talent to truly thrive. If they can improve that, whether it be from the play of guys they already had or new faces, it will cause problems for even the most efficient offenses.

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Sander Philipse - Bucs Nation: The Falcons need to improve their defense, at every single position. It's really not much more complicated than that. We know Julio Jones and Matt Ryan are good enough to put up points and win games, as long as the defense keeps up their end of the deal. Sure, a more consistent running game and an extra receiving weapon in Mohamed Sanu will help, but the offense should be good enough as is. That is: if Kyle Shanahan's offense isn't fundamentally broken in a non-obvious way, which I sometimes think may be the case. The talented they added along the line should help there, though.

However, the defense needs major work. The Falcons know that, and they spent most of the offseason addressing it, but the question is whether it was enough. None of the other former Pete Carroll assistants have turned their defenses into quality units (looking at you, Gus Bradley), so why would Dan Quinn be any better? One reason could be better personnel, and the Falcons have certainly worked to improve their team on that front. Another reason: this team sure did win a lot early last season. If Atlanta can sustain that for a full season, they'll comfortably win the division.

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So, what do you think? Are the Falcons on the cusp of getting back into the thick of things in the NFC South or is Head Coach Dan Quinn going to find itself on the hot seat much quicker than he ever anticipated?

Join us again tomorrow, as we conclude this roundtable with a closer look at your New Orleans Saints and debate whether the window for Brees and the Saints is still even slightly open for another NFC South win and a return to the NFL postseason.