22nd, 25th, and 26th.
Those were the rankings that ESPN, NFL.com, and Sports Illustrated gave the Atlanta Falcons in each of their 2016 opening week power rankings.
Coming off of an utter collapse the previous year and armed with the league’s hardest schedule, the media’s expectations for this season were slim to say the least. People had every right to be concerned for Atlanta, as the team was battling perceived issues with OC Kyle Shanahan, a dismal pass rush, and inevitable rookie struggles. NFL Network analyst Heath Evans predicted that Atlanta would go 5-11 this year (he has since received plenty of deserved criticism), and even the Falcons’ own Vaughn McClure had them at 7-9. Unsurprisingly, head coach Dan Quinn, the front-office, and the players had other plans in mind. The goal in the locker room was always clear: “We want to win the Super Bowl.”
The thing is, the Falcons embrace being doubted. From the start of the offseason all the way up to the upcoming Super Bowl, people have constantly underestimated how legitimate this team actually is. It just adds fuel to their fire.
Back in May, the generally well-respected analysts at Pro Football Focus stamped Atlanta with the worst 2016 draft grade in the league (they gave the Falcons a D+), so apparently it was just “luck” that we have an astonishing five rookies starting in Super Bowl LI, which includes the first four picks of this draft, as well as an undrafted gem in slot cornerback Brian Poole. There were only two rookies in the NFL who finished the season with 100+ tackles, and they just happen to be Keanu Neal and Deion Jones. Sounds more like an A+ to me.
After just a few games into the year, multiple season-ending injuries began plaguing the team, including the loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant, and hardly anyone believed the Falcons could hang with any of the league’s best come playoff time while missing some key pieces. Dan Quinn and the players thought otherwise. The team’s “next man up” attitude led to the outstanding emergence of several players, particularly second-year cornerback Jalen Collins, who has made some massive plays in recent games and has helped improve the secondary’s play in general.
The abrupt rise of Vic Beasley helped stabilize what was a laughable pass rush, and rookie linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell were gaining confidence by the day. Offensively, Stanford rookie Austin Hooper filled in nicely for tight end Jacob Tamme, and the Falcons marched on without missing a beat.
After a crushing Week 13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Falcons found themselves tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers atop the NFC South at 7-5. Fans were nervous, and many national analysts thought the Bucs hot streak would lead them to securing the division title. Still, Atlanta stayed focus, and their clutch late-season play put them on a winning streak that has been going strong since that Chiefs game.
As Matt Ryan was putting up monster numbers at unbelievable efficiency, people still just saw him as an outsider in the MVP race. Like he’s been doing all season, he silenced the doubters by statistically outperforming the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Derek Carr week after week. Yet apparently, having the fifth-best passer rating in NFL regular season history wasn’t enough to win over everyone.
That final-stretch run led them to secure them a first-round bye, but few expected them have any chance at a trip to Houston. They claimed that Matt Ryan did not possess the necessary “it-factor” to carry a team through the playoffs, as three of his first four career playoff berths had ended in first-round exits. Unfazed by the skeptics, Ryan strung together back-to-back commanding playoff wins against Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, who are undisputedly two of the best quarterbacks in the business, and now people are finally recognizing that Matty Ice is deserving of being named the NFL’s 2016 Most Valuable Player. Coming into the season, most people didn’t even have Atlanta in the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl.
Now, all eyes are on the Falcons, and the nation is waiting for them to show they belong on this stage. Despite Atlanta being the hottest team in football, the Patriots currently have the odds in their favor, as they’ve been hovering around three point favorites leading up to next Sunday. Most people will probably be rooting for the Falcons purely because of their despised opponent, but it’s hard to pick against arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, especially against an opponent as unforeseen as Atlanta.
With a head coach in just his second year, five rookie starters, and a quarterback who has never played in a spotlight this intense, there are many valid points to lead a belief that New England’s seasoned dynasty will capture yet another championship.
Sure, we might not be favored to win the Super Bowl, but if this season has taught us anything, it’s that the Falcons, along with their underdog mentality, are out to prove all the doubters wrong one last time.