For football, June is the silly season. Nothing much is happening, but everybody has an idea what will happen. Here’s where I add to the silliness. Here’s where I tell you why the Falcons will play for the NFC title on Jan. 23, 2011.
1. The NFC South is the league’s most fluid division. Not once in eight tries has it yielded consecutive division winners, not even when the reigning NFC South champ was also the Super Bowl winner. (Tampa Bay went from lifting the Lombardi Trophy in February 2003 to finishing 7-9 ten months later.) This is noteworthy because the New Orleans Saints, as we know, somehow won Super Bowl XLIV.
2. The Saints are vulnerable. They’ve had the usual post-Super round of controversy and then some. A lawsuit (since withdrawn and sent to arbitration) by the team’s former security director accusing Saints staffers of misusing Vicodin. Tight end Jeremy Shockey fainting in the weight room. Safety Darren Sharper getting into a Twitter fight with a former Minnesota teammate. Tackle Jammal Brown and running back Pierre Thomas wanting more money. The Saints weren’t that much better than the Falcons a year ago, and this time they won’t be as good.
3. The defensive upgrade begun in the offseason of 2009 will grow teeth in 2010. The Falcons changed five starters from 2008 to last season, but they didn’t get immediately better at every position. Some of that had to do with injury, and tackle Peria Jerry’s return to health stands to give the D-line a boost. The same should happen in the secondary with the advent of cornerback Dunta Robinson and at linebacker with the addition of Sean Weatherspoon. The Falcons actually nosed upward defensively in 2009 — they finished 21st in total defense, up from 24th in 2008. They should be close to the top 10 this season.
4. If 2009 was as bad as it gets for Matt Ryan, the Falcons will be just fine. The quarterback wasn’t awful last season; he just wasn’t quite as precise as he’d been as a rookie. Yes, there were mitigating factors: Michael Turner got hurt and Jerious Norwood stayed hurt and the line didn’t block as well for the run as it had in 2008. But the Falcons’ whole offensive approach seemed a tad off last season. Too many short passes — that’s what happens when you add Tony Gonzalez — and not enough field-stretching. That figures to change in 2010. The Falcons have had a long time to scout themselves and see where they went wrong, and slot receiver Harry Douglas is due to return from knee surgery.
5. That never-consecutive-winning-seasons thing has finally gone away. Even Falcons insiders were of two minds about the much-discussed mark of ignominy: Some didn’t think it was a big deal, and some thought it was the biggest deal going. But now it’s gone, and the Falcons deserve great credit for taking a season going wrong and wringing a 9-7 record out of it. They know now that these coaches are clever enough to have a Plan B — as opposed to Jim Mora and Co. — and that there’s enough talent and resolve on this roster to persevere in the face of injuries and distractions. No, 2009 wasn’t a championship season, but it could well have been the season that prefigures a championship.
Prediction time: The Falcons will go 12-4, will beat Green Bay in the conference semifinals and will play Dallas in Dallas for the NFC title and the right to play in Super Bowl XLV, which is also in … er, Dallas. And how, you’re asking, will the Falcons fare against the Cowboys?
And I say: Let me hold onto a shred of mystery, please. It’s June. I see no reason to offer a prediction on the outcome of the 2011 NFC championship game until at least the Fourth of July.