Brian Allee-Walsh

Pass the crow: Atlanta made a lot of doubters eat their words

Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh
Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh Biloxi

NEW ORLEANS

On the eve of Super Bowl LI, the time has come to 'fess up.

In early September, I picked the Atlanta Falcons to go 5-11 ... to finish last in the NFC South, behind Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay ... and miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year under owner Arthur Blank in his final season at the Georgia Dome before moving into a new, jaw-dropping $1.4 billion downtown stadium in August.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think quarterback Matt Ryan would piece together a MVP-caliber season and be the triggerman for the NFL's most prolific offense.

Never did I envision the Falcons going 11-5 and winning the NFC South, two games ahead of the Buccaneers, four games ahead of the Saints and six games ahead of the three-time defending division champion Panthers.

And here they are, playing on the NFL's biggest stage in front of tens of millions TV viewers worldwide, vying for the coveted Lombardi Trophy at NRG Stadium in Houston, against the league's dynastic New England Patriots who are coached by the venerable Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by the league's preeminent player, Tom Brady.

Pass the crow, please! May I have some hot sauce and an adult beverage, or two.

Or three.

It will take a lot to rid the foul taste in my mouth.

Look, I never saw the Falcons' season coming, not based on Ryan's play in the preseason (zero TD passes, one INT, 10 offensive points with him under center), and a season-opening home loss to Tampa Bay that saw the Falcons' defense get shredded for four TD passes by Winston.

It serves as a reminder that first impressions are not always correct.

Here's what else I didn't see coming:

▪ The tremendous impact free agent center Alex Mack would have on the offensive line and how quickly he would gel with OC Mike Shanahan and Ryan in making the offense whole.

▪ The O-line staying intact for 16 games.

▪ Versatile running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman packing such a weekly wallop.

▪ Free-agent wide receiver Mohamed Sanu playing a huge complementary role for All-Pro wideout Julio Jones.

▪ The emergence of play-making wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, an unproven, undrafted free agent who was claimed off waivers from Cleveland on the eve of the regular season.

▪ Second-year outside linebacker Vic Beasley becoming a disruptive force and leading the NFL in sacks with 15.5, nearly matching the team's entire output of 19 under rookie coach Dan Quinn in 2015.

▪ The defensive impact made by rookies, particularly from mid-season to now -- safety Keanu Neal (first-round pick), linebacker Deion Jones (second-round pick), OLB De'Vondre Campbell (fourth-round pick) and free agent cornerback Brian Poole -- and second-year draft picks, cornerback Jalen Collins, safety Ricardo Allen and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.

▪ The overall team speed.

▪ And finally, the difference that second-year coach Dan Quinn has made in a short period of time. He has turned out to be an excellent hire by Blank and suggests the Falcons will be a force to be reckoned with going forward.

One of Quinn's first orders of business will be to find a great replacement for Shanahan, who's expected to sign a six-year deal as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in the immediate days after Sunday's game.

First things first.

Atlanta has a game to play Sunday (FOX, 5:30 p.m.).

And I've got some crow to eat.

CAW-CAW!

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

  Comments