The Atlanta Falcons are the real deal — they proved it Sunday in Denver.
And in an NFL where good teams are hard to find, that makes them Super Bowl contenders.
Atlanta has the best offense in the NFL so far this season — it helped them start the season 3-1, despite allowing 31 points per game.
The reasons to doubt the Falcons were many — the opponents they had faced and will face throughout the season by virtue of playing in the NFC South being the chief slight.
The Denver Broncos are much, much better than the New Orleans Saints or even Carolina Panthers, though. And even with rookie Paxton Lynch starting his first game of the year for Denver, Sunday’s contest at Mile High was a test.
The Falcons passed.
It wasn’t a rout, but Atlanta showed enough to be convincing.
Against arguably the best defense in the NFL, the Falcons had no problem moving the ball. Matt Ryan continued his strong start to the season — he’s the leader for MVP right now — with a steady 15-of-28 performance for 267 yards and a touchdown. Was it spectacular? Hardly, but it was efficient and against a defense like Denver’s efficient is high praise.
The Falcons also ran the ball to some success Sunday — Devonta Freeman was excellent, perhaps living up to the “legendary” label Von Miller bestowed upon him in the build-up to the game. Freeman ran the ball 23 times for 88 yards and a touchdown.
But the real reason the Falcons passed their test — the real show of muster — was the performance on the defensive side of the ball.
Lynch might be young and unproven, but he showed glimpses of why the Broncos are so high on him Sunday. But only glimpses — the Atlanta defense, particularly against the run, was strong.
It’s not the kind of defensive performance that’s going to win a Super Bowl, but the Falcons showed that they probably have the best defense, right now, in the NFC South (a low bar, to be fair) and alongside that offense, that makes them formidable.
The Atlanta Falcons are a flawed team, but their strengths, more often than not, will shine brighter than their weaknesses. And when those weaknesses don’t look so weak, it makes Atlanta a tough team to beat.
In most years, that status would be good for a Wild Card spot and perhaps, if you’re on your best behavior, a playoff win. But this season, where parity tilts closer to equally poor than equally good, and in that division, where it’s likely there will only be one winning team, the Falcons stand out as one of the NFL’s best.