Pop quiz: Which NFL South team has ever won the division two consecutive years? You have four choices, so that should be a 25% chance, right? Wrong. The answer is none of them. Not the 2002 Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl. Not the 2003 Panthers, who lost in the Super Bowl. Not the 2004 Falcons, who lost in the NFC Championship. Not the 2006 Saints, who also lost in the NFC Championship. It’s never happened.
Coming into the 2010 season, the New Orleans Saints were general favorites to win the NFC, particularly their division, which was perceived to be weak. Heading into week 5, the Saints are 3-1, with their one loss coming in the division to… the Atlanta Falcons. So is this Falcons team for real?
After a dazzling rookie year, quarterback Matt Ryan took a step back last season, and the Falcons struggled all year with an injured Michael Turner and an embattled defense. They spent the offseason getting Turner healthy and bolstering their defense by signing talented cornerback Dunta Robinson and drafting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the first round. Thus far, it is paying dividends.
The brightest moment of the season came two weeks ago, when they rolled into New Orleans and took down the defending champion Saints. The victory sent a message to the Saints: These Falcons aren’t to be taken lightly. They boast Pro-Bowl quality talent at wide receiver and running back. Their defense is young, but fast and emerging. They play hard for their coach. They even have a bit of destiny on their side.
Last week, in a close battle with an underachieving 49ers’ team, Ryan threw a costly interception in the waning moments of the game, which for all intents and purposes, should have given San Francisco the victory. Yet wide receiver Roddy White made an outstanding hustle play tracking down the defender and forcing a fumble -- and then recovered it. It kept the Falcons chances alive. A minute and a half later the Falcons kicked a game winning field goal.
The Falcons may not be the best team in the NFL, but going into New Orleans and beating the Saints is a statement game. Don’t be surprised if this team is your NFC South Champions. After all, that would be just like any other year.