2018 NFL Preview: Hangover gone, Falcons could play at home in this season's Super Bowl

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

We’ve spent all offseason celebrating the Philadelphia Eagles, and forgot how close they came to losing their first playoff game last season.

It was right there for the Atlanta Falcons. They led at halftime. In the final two minutes they had first-and-goal at the 9-yard line. The fourth-down play from the 2-yard line was a bad play call that offered quarterback Matt Ryan only one realistic option as he rolled right looking for wideout Julio Jones, and it still should have ended up as a game-winning touchdown. The ball went through Jones’ hands.

There were times last season when we lost track of how good the Falcons were. They were 10-6 with some weird losses. Had Detroit Lions receiver Golden Tate’s touchdown in the final seconds against the Falcons not been overturned because he was inches short, Atlanta wouldn’t have made the playoffs.

Let’s blame the Super Bowl hangover for the malaise because the roster is still loaded.

The Falcons might not repeat their incredible 2016 season, though they still have the talent to win the NFC. And the Super Bowl is going to be played in their home stadium this season.

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Ryan’s MVP season is an outlier, but he’s good. The Falcons still have two explosive running backs, a future Hall-of-Fame receiver in Jones (assuming he plays … his contract standoff is troubling) and added first-round pick Calvin Ridley to the receiving corps. The defense wasn’t great last season but there’s young talent everywhere on that side of the ball. If you’re examining roster depth, the Falcons are among the top few teams in the NFL. Most of the team that led the New England Patriots 28-3 in the Super Bowl (sorry, Falcons fans) is still around.

Since the Falcons’ talent level doesn’t match up with their 2017 record, it’s worth examining what went wrong. It’s scary that the Falcons actually had tremendous injury luck; according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric, the Falcons had the second-best injury situation in the NFL last season. And they were still underwhelming.

Much of the blame fell on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. He had an impossible act to follow, after Kyle Shanahan was masterful in 2016. The Falcons’ offense was still good — fourth in yards per pass play, seventh in yards per run play — but Sarkisian got blamed for anything that went wrong. Before the 2016 season, Shanahan got similar criticism. It took Ryan a year to adjust to Shanahan, and perhaps that will happen with Sarkisian too.

The defense took a step back. Vic Beasley went from 15.5 sacks to five. Big plays vanished. The Falcons had just 16 takeaways, and only four teams had fewer. The Falcons had a plus-11 turnover margin two seasons ago, and minus-two last year. That makes a big difference.

The playoffs reminded us how good the Falcons can be. They upset the Los Angeles Rams, dominating a team that was great in the regular season. Had Jones caught that fourth-down pass at Philadelphia, we’d be having a much different discussion about the Falcons (and the Eagles).

You can talk yourself into the Falcons having a huge rebound, even though their 2017 wasn’t bad. The roster is loaded with talent. Ryan and Sarkisian should be better in their second season together. If the Falcons’ thin defensive tackle situation (it gets scary after Grady Jarrett) doesn’t turn out to be a problem, the defense should be much better.

Last season the Minnesota Vikings were a game away from being the first team to play a Super Bowl at home. The Falcons have the ability to make it happen this season.

Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman is one of the main reasons the Falcons are dangerous heading into this season. (AP)

It’s not like the Falcons have much salary-cap wiggle room, due in large part to Matt Ryan’s massive contract. He signed a five-year, $150 million extension in May.

The Falcons had to save for that and didn’t add a major impact player. Guard Brandon Fusco got $12.75 million over three years, and nobody else got more than $2 million total.

The losses of defensive linemen Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn, and receiver Taylor Gabriel will sting. Poe could be a big loss if the Falcons can’t find defensive tackle depth. The draft was good, led by the value pick of Calvin Ridley at the end of the first round.

GRADE: C+

Just like 2016, the defense played better in the second half of the season. From Week 12 on, the Falcons didn’t give up more than 23 points in any game. Over Atlanta’s last three games, including playoffs, the Falcons gave up 10, 13 and 15 points to the Panthers, Rams and Eagles. The Eagles piled up plenty of yards and points against the Vikings and Patriots after the Falcons held them to 15 points and 281 yards. Even Atlanta’s turnover problems started to turn, as the Falcons forced seven turnovers in their last three games. If the defense can carry that over to this season, the Falcons will be a Super Bowl contender.

The clearest answer is Julio Jones’ contract squabble, and now that the Falcons have reportedly drawn a line and told him they will not rework his deal before the season, I’m not sure how it turns out. For the purposes of this preview I’m guessing he plays all 16 games, but we all know the impact it would have on the Falcons if he doesn’t. With that situation impossible to predict right now, I’ll turn to the offensive coordinator. Matt Ryan and Steve Sarkisian could click in their second year together, especially considering Sarkisian was making a big transition from college to the NFL last year. It’s also possible Sarkisian won’t turn that corner. He wasn’t very creative, most notably with Julio Jones. Jones had just three touchdowns last season. Jones needs to be a bigger factor, especially in the red zone. The Falcons’ red-zone failures were a biggest reason the team dropped from 540 points in 2016 to 353 last season. Atlanta still had plenty of big plays, third-down success and total yards. But maybe Sarkisian can’t unlock the next level.

Some of Matt Ryan’s drop in production last season can be explained by simple regression. He threw touchdowns on 7.1 percent of his passes in 2016, even though his career rate before that was 4.5 percent. It swung the other way in 2017 and he posted a 3.8 touchdown percentage. We need to assume Ryan will never again play like he did two seasons ago, but his standard level is fine. He has posted a passer rating of at least 89 in each of the past eight seasons. He throws a few too many interceptions, but he makes up for it. He has seven straight 4,000-yard seasons. Ryan might never be the No. 1 quarterback in the NFL again, but he’s probably a top-10 quarterback.

Vic Beasley had a tremendous 2016, then didn’t replicate that in 2017. He moved around from defensive end to outside linebacker. He had some nagging injuries. He’ll be at defensive end full time this season. Beasley was asked to play linebacker out of necessity and he was fine with that, even if it didn’t accentuate his strengths.

“I wasn’t rushing as much as I normally would,” Beasley said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There were less opportunities, but it was for the betterment of the team and what the team needed most at that moment. I was fine with that.”

Sack totals aren’t everything, but the Falcons need Beasley to create big plays if the defense is going to reach its potential.

One stat that provides an easy snapshot for efficiency is yards per play on offense minus yards allowed per play on defense. The Falcons finished last season at a net positive of 0.6 yards per play (5.8 yards gained per play, 5.2 allowed). The only other teams to reach plus-0.6 last season were the Jaguars, Chargers (there’s a reason they haven’t shown up on this countdown yet), Saints and Vikings. The Patriots were at plus-0.3 and the Eagles were at plus-0.4. There are a thousand stats you can mine to judge how good a team is, and yard-per-play differential says the Falcons were among the best teams in the NFL last season.

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “Devonta Freeman has never been the biggest or fastest back in the league, but his vision and patience have more than compensated for any physical shortcomings. While he didn’t post top-eight FF numbers in 2017 – a regression from his previous two outings – he still managed low-end RB1 numbers and 13 goal line carries (#3 among RBs). Averaging 4.4 YPC on the season, the 26-year-old remained efficient, managing 4.8 YPC against base fronts. Earning 4 more carries per game than Tevin Coleman, Freeman will continue as the team’s RB1. He’s currently my RB12, though that would obviously change were he to re-tweak his knee.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Falcons.]

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HOW WILL THE FALCONS KEEP ALL OF THEIR PLAYMAKERS HAPPY?

It’s not the worst problem to have, but the Falcons have a lot of mouths to feed on offense. They already have two starting-caliber running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. They have Julio Jones, who is always in the argument as the NFL’s best receiver. Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper probably didn’t get enough targets last season. And now first-round pick Calvin Ridley joins them.

Ridley was considered by many the best receiver in this draft class. The Falcons couldn’t pass him when he fell to No. 26. The Falcons are going to be hard to defend with all of that talent. We know Jones will get looks (again, assuming he plays). He had 148 targets last season. Freeman has averaged a little more than 14 carries a game the past two seasons, and Coleman got 10.4 last season. The Falcons won’t let Ridley sit the bench after using a first-round pick on him. The staff will have to figure out how to spread the wealth.

This is the first team on the countdown I can realistically envision winning a Super Bowl. There are many reasons — both statistical and the old eye test — to believe in the Falcons. If Steve Sarkisian is better this season, particularly in the red zone, Atlanta can again be one of the top scoring teams in the league. We have seen the defense play at a high level, though not yet for a full season. This roster is loaded and if the Falcons aren’t one of the NFL’s best teams we can probably blame it on the coaching staff.

You’re going to hear this a lot through these previews: The biggest problem the Falcons face is the NFC is as deep as ever. If Atlanta can’t beat the Panthers or Saints in what might be the toughest division in the NFL, they’ll be competing with some other very good teams for only two wild-card spots. At the end of the season, we’ll note that some very good NFC teams got left out of the playoffs. If the Falcons have some injuries and the defense still lags in the middle of the league, the Falcons could be one of those teams.

I like the Falcons, but like the Saints a bit more. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if the Falcons are a juggernaut again, like they were in 2016. The talent on the roster is unmistakable. I’ll probably be picking the Saints to win the division and the Falcons to get a wild-card spot, but we saw last season that Atlanta can be very dangerous from that spot.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys
11. Kansas City Chiefs

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!