Today's Free Picks for
Posted August 20.
The Falcons finished 7-9 last season, which was no doubt a disappointment after a trip to the NFC Championship game in 2017 and a Super Bowl run in 2016. That '16 Atlanta squad featured one of the most prolific offenses of all time and it gave the Dirty Birds a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI. What happened next sent this franchise into a tailspin. It has also become known for making hasty decisions. Yes, the Falcons spectacularly blew that lead and allowed Tom Brady and the Patriots to hoist another Lombardi Trophy, but it wasn't the defenses fault. That didn't stop defensive coordinator Richard Smith from taking the hit for an offensive "genius" like Kyle Shanahan, who didn't know it was better to run on 3rd and 1 late in that game than to pass. Shanahan took the top job in San Francisco the next day and somebody had to pay. With a pair of new coordinators last season in Steve Sarkisian (offense) and Marquand Manuel (defense), the Falcons were unbalanced with Matt Ryan and the passing attack being the only bright light on either side of the ball. Atlanta was 31st in defensive DVOA, but two significant injuries contributed greatly to that, as the Falcons lost safety Keanu Neal in Week 1 with a torn ACL and linebacker Deion Jones also broke his foot in that game against the Eagles and missed the next 2½ months. Injuries are a big reason why we prefer to play unders. From Weeks 10-17 Atlanta improved to 22nd in defensive DVOA and Jones' return was a big reason for that. Manuel, of course, was relieved of his duties. Now, head coach Dan Quinn is primed to take over the "D" and will wear two hats when coaching this season, but the changes to his staff didn't end there.
In regards to the Falcons poor ground game, you must also consider they lost lead runner Devonta Freeman in Week 1 and he only played in one more game after that. Backup Tevin Coleman was serviceable at times, but he has rejoined Shanahan in San Francisco which leaves new/old offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter little to work with. Yes, the Falcons also fired Sarkisian and rehired Koetter, who was with the team from 2012-14. Koetter is fresh off his failed attempt to guide the Buccaneers to respectability and his hiring is very curious. When Koetter was in Atlanta the first time, Matt Ryan was one of the most conservative pivots in the league and as soon as he left, "Matty Ice" was slinging the ball all over the field. Quinn is obviously on the hot seat, but this feels like a big step backwards, as is his stating the "Dirty Birds" would be looking for offensive "balance" this season with an emphasis on an increase in run attempts. Anytime you have the chance to take the one thing you do really well and scale it back; you have to take it.
The Falcons are a sexy pick by the pundits to return to form this season and make a run at the playoffs, but we do not see how this team wins two more games this season than it did in 2018. Those seven victories are so deceiving, as three of them came at the end of the season in meaningless games. All the Falcons did was ruin their draft position, but Quinn was coaching for his life and 7-9 is a lot more respectable than 4-12. Atlanta owner Arthur Blank has been loyal to Quinn to a fault and it's easy to understand why, but Quinn is now a man on an island, as he'll be the first coach since Rod Meyer of the Colts in 1989 to have fired all three of his coordinators. Did we forget to mention that long-time special teams man Keith Armstrong got the ax too?
From a pure scheduling standpoint, the Falcons sit just outside the top five with the sixth toughest schedule according to Football Outsiders. Four of Atlanta's first six games are on the road with trips to Minnesota, Indianapolis and Houston before returning home for back-to-back contests with the Rams and Seahawks respectively. They also host the Eagles in Week 2. After their Week 8 bye, the Falcons play all six of their division games, which is quite unusual. Included in that mix is a trip to San Francisco and a home date with the Jaguars in Week 16. If all goes well, this is a seven-win team, at best. If there's a bump or two in the road, Atlanta's wagon could finally break down for good and it would be wise to leave coach Quinn on the side of the road moving forward. Over the past 10 years, our season win totals in all sports have hit at a clip of 86.7% and we like this one as much as any we have posted over that span.
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Atlanta under 8½ -105 (Risking 4.20 units - To Win: 4.00)