NFL team previews: Atlanta Falcons

With the 2012 NFL season approaching fast, we go around the league to preview every team. Up next: the Atlanta Falcons.

OUTLOOK

Although they've experienced a great deal of success over the past four seasons, Atlanta has been unable to meet its goal of reaching a Super Bowl. The Falcons will be in the mix in the NFC South again, but the competition in the division will be tougher. Despite a turbulent offseason, New Orleans remains the favorite, while Carolina is close to regaining its status as a contender.

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The wild card in the division is Tampa Bay, which after a poor 2011 campaign could regain its form of two years ago. Despite the increased competition, Matt Ryan and his offensive weapons will enter 2012 with high expectations, and anything short of a deep playoff run will be a disappointment.

OFFSEASON

The Falcons were very quiet during the offseason, as they didn't sign a single free agent of note. Instead, Atlanta focused on re-signing some of its own, such as defensive end John Abraham and center Todd McClure.

The Falcons' lack of activity in the free-agent market was somewhat surprising, given that they lost a handful of contributors, most notably linebacker Curtis Lofton.


John Abraham is still one of the premier players on the Falcons defense.

ROOKIES

Due to moving up to select wide receiver Julio Jones a year ago, the Falcons didn't have a first-round pick in the draft. A quick look at the team's rookie class shows a rather pedestrian group, but they did manage to find a couple of future starters. Peter Konz was considered one of the draft's top centers and will help Atlanta in the trenches. Fullback Bradie Ewing is known as a tremendous blocker and also has a chance to develop into a starter.

THE SCHEDULE

The Falcons should benefit from one of the league's easier schedules, playing against only four teams that won nine or more games in 2011. Atlanta will have an excellent chance to be undefeated entering the team's bye in Week 7 before a difficult three-game stretch commences against Philadelphia, Dallas and New Orleans.

The NFC South could be one of the NFL's most improved divisions as Tampa Bay will attempt to return to the form it displayed two years ago while Carolina is loaded with young talent and has the ability to emerge as a contender. The Falcons will need to navigate through tough contests in the second half of the season against the New York Giants and on the road in Detroit, but anything less than 11 wins would be considered a disappointment for Atlanta.

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER

Matt Ryan, quarterback. Ryan is the face of the Falcons' franchise and the fate of the team's success lies in his hands.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER

John Abraham, defensive end. Abraham is entering the twilight of his career but is still a formidable edge pass rusher who has racked up 112 career sacks.

WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...

If the Saints' Bountygate issues carry into the 2012 campaign and the Falcons can hold off potential surges from the Panthers and Buccaneers. New Orleans is the NFC South's superior team, but with a surplus of offensive weapons, the Falcons aren't far behind.

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