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Falcons starting to look dangerous in NFC picture

 

Matt Ryan (2) and Roddy White hooked up for two TDs against the Jags. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

In winning four of its last five games, the Falcons have beaten one team with an above. 500 record (Tennessee). Atlanta has just one other win this entire season against a team with a winning record (at Detroit). So, it would be a little haphazard to take Thursday night's 41-14 blowout of a disinterested Jaguars team and use it as evidence of anything regarding the Falcons' talent level or chances come playoff time.

And yet ...

It's hard to look at this Atlanta team and not have some visions of grandeur. That's especially true on a night like Thursday, when the Falcons put their foot on the throat of an overmatched opponent and never let up.

Matt Ryan torched Jacksonville for 224 yards and three touchdowns, two to Roddy White and one to Julio Jones. Between that duo, Tony Gonzalez and some timely running from Michael Turner, the Falcons absolutely dominated the Jaguars' defense, which had been the strength of that team coming into the game.

Is this Atlanta team as good as the Packers or even the Saints? On paper, it doesn't look like it.

But the Falcons were the NFC favorites heading into last postseason. Remember where that got them?

It got them sent home immediately, on the wrong end of a whitewash by the Packers. Green Bay sneaked into the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6 seed, then proceeded to take down Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago on the road.

So maybe Atlanta is capable of pulling a similar trick. Between a multifaceted offense and a defense with a couple of playmakers here and there, the Falcons are the type of team, if everything's clicking at the same time, that can be dangerous in the playoffs.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The Falcons still have to wrap up a playoff berth, which means winning at least one of their final two games (at New Orleans, vs. Tampa Bay). If Atlanta can't upset the Saints next week, the pressure would be on in that Week 17 matchup against the Buccaneers.

Still, since we're talking about the Falcons as a possible dark-horse contender here, let's assume they get the job done.

From there, well, it would come down to Matt Ryan. It may not be fair to constantly pin teams hopes on their quarterbacks, but it's the reality of that position, especially on a team like Atlanta.

When Ryan is on his game, like he has been for much of the past six weeks, Atlanta can make life miserable for opposing defenses. Just like the Packers, the Falcons are capable of spreading the field and beating teams in any number of ways.

When he's off, on the other hand, the Falcons don't stand a chance.

Ryan saw firsthand what a hot quarterback can do in the postseason, when he watched Aaron Rodgers rip Atlanta's defense to shreds in the divisional round last January. Rodgers had been a very good NFL quarterback on a very good team -- then took it to the next level, starting right about playoff time last season.

Last season was Rodgers' fourth as a starter. This season marks Ryan's fourth year at the helm in Atlanta.

Of course, Rodgers had the help of an opportunistic defense, one that came up with turnovers at just the right time. Atlanta's defense is in the middle of the pack in just about every major category this season, but cranked it up Thursday to force four turnovers and score a touchdown.

Chalk a ton of that up to the Jaguars' sleepwalking offense if you want -- and it definitely deserves some of the credit -- but that same offense also hung 41 points on Tampa Bay last week.

Atlanta doesn't need to pitch shutouts every week to win. It just needs its defense to be good enough to hang close, and possibly pop loose a couple quick possession changes.

We'll learn a lot more about where Atlanta stands on Dec. 26, when the Falcons venture into New Orleans. The Saints will be one of the teams lurking ahead of the Falcons in the NFC playoffs -- one of the teams expected to go further than Atlanta does.

But make no mistake about it: Atlanta has the potential to be dangerous in the postseason, whether against the Saints, 49ers or even the mighty Packers. Does that mean the Falcons are suddenly the team to beat?

Definitely not, especially if you're trying to base that on Thursday's win over Jacksonville. Rodgers and the Packers showed Atlanta, though, what an upstart team can do in the playoffs, if it hits it stride at the right time.

These playoffs might provide a chance for the Falcons to return the lesson.

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