2012 Record: 13-3

2012 Downfall

Second Half Collapse
Had it been a regular season game, fantasy owners of Julio Jones would have rejoiced. His two first-half touchdowns (11 catches for 182 yards on the day) would have been beneficial, but not as beneficial as it was to Atlanta, who led 17-0, and then took a 24-14 lead into the half against San Francisco.

Those 24 points would end up not being enough for the Falcons, but more points would be hard to come by. At the start of the third quarter, Frank Gore ran in a touchdown to make it 24-21 with plenty of time to go. Atlanta just simply needed to keep chopping away.

The next drive ended in an interception beyond midfield. After the 49ers missed a tying field goal, Atlanta fumbled the ball back. Then the 49ers fumbled near Atlanta's goal. Rough field position led to Atlanta punting, where the game swung to the Niners.

Most Important Drive Stalls
With nearly eight and a half minutes left, Gore plowed in from nine yards out to give San Francisco a 28-24 advantage, their first lead of the game. With a trip to their second Super Bowl at stake, Matt Ryan needed to erase the dismal second half.

It took nine plays, but the Falcons broke into the Niners' red zone with nearly three minutes to go. With 2:23 remaining, the Falcons had a first and ten from the 16-yard line. A touchdown was needed, and Atlanta went to the warning after a 1-yard run.

Second and nine was a five-yard completion to Jason Snelling. With third and four to go, ten yards from the end zone, Ryan threw two straight incompletions, both to Roddy White. The 49ers killed most of the clock, leaving Atlanta to lose after a desperation throw.

2013 Projected Wins: 10

Top 3 Rookies
-Desmond Trufant, CB (1/22): Multi-faceted and athletic, can steer quarterbacks away from his side of the field, possessing lockdown shades not unlike Darrelle Revis.

-Robert Alford, CB (2/60): Has a niche in run-stopping, which Atlanta (4.16 YPA) was merely average in last season; injury-prone due to physical style.

-Malliciah Goodman, DE (4/127): Possibly a fourth-round steal, inconsistent and takes himself out of plays, but has the work ethic to be effective in flashes.

Other Moves
The Falcons underwent a DNA change in terms of big name talent. On March 1, the team announced the releases of Michael Turner, John Abraham, and Dunta Robinson. Turner had become ineffective, while Abraham turned 35 in May.

Replacing Turner is the slightly-younger Steven Jackson, who begins a three year deal at age 30. Abraham's replacement is Osi Umenyiora, who will likely start after being mostly a roleplayer in recent years. Robinson is replaced by Trufant in the draft.

The offensive line also undergoes some drastic changes. Veteran center Todd McClure retired, while tackle Tyson Clabo was released. 2012 draft picks Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes will fill in for both long-time players, tasked with improving the team's run blocking.

Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Matt Ryan
RB - Steven Jackson
FB - Bradie Ewing
WR - Julio Jones
WR - Roddy White
TE - Tony Gonzalez
LT - Sam Baker
LG - Justin Blalock
C - Peter Konz
RG - Garrett Reynolds
RT - Lamar Holmes

DE - Kroy Biermann
DT - Jonathan Babineaux
DT - Peria Jerry
DE - Osi Umenyiora
OLB - Stephen Nicholas
MLB - Akeem Dent
OLB - Sean Weatherspoon
CB - Asante Samuel
CB - Desmond Trufant
FS - Thomas Decoud
SS - William Moore

K - Matt Bryant
P - Matt Bosher
LS - Josh Harris

2013 at a Glance
Tony Gonzalez could now sympathize with Randall Cunningham and Cris Carter.

Nearing the end of his career (he did indeed say 2012 would be his final season), he makes it to his first NFC Championship game. He was a key player on a high-powered offense that won the conference's top seed, with the road to the Super Bowl going through his city.

But his team fell short in the end, denying him a taste of the Super Bowl experience.

When that happened to Minnesota in 1998, it was Atlanta that shattered the dream. It isn't karmic that Atlanta fell short this time around, but it's an interesting parallel.

When free agency began, Gonzalez, galvanized by the torment of dropping before the visible finish line, signed a two-year deal to keep his career going. He can't leave when the team, and he, came so close.

Jackson's in a similar boat, having not played in a playoff game since his rookie season of 2004. The Rams hadn't even had a winning record in his tenure (they were 8-8 during that playoff run), and as a 30-year-old back, he knows his clock is running out.

From the line, former Pro Bowler Clabo and McClure are gone, thus giving the group more youth (Blalock's the oldest, and won't turn 30 until December), but less experience and continuity with two sophomores in Konz and Holmes.

As long as the offense has Ryan, White, and Jones, it should remain a powerhouse. Despite line troubles last season, the efficient Ryan was only sacked 28 times.

Mike Nolan's defense could use a supercharge. Despite giving up the fifth least points in the league (18.7 PPG), the D has the eighth worst third down percentage (40.5 percent conversions), ranked fourth worst in run stopping (4.8 YPA), and made just 29 sacks. 10 of those came from the departed Abraham.

Nolan's excited to have Umenyiora on board. The longtime Giant has 15 sacks over the past couple of seasons, despite starting just 11 games, and playing in 25.

The loss of Curtis Lofton before last season did a number on the run defense. Without the surefire tackler, the yards-per-run increased from 4.19 from 2011. After nearly losing to Seattle (123 rushing yards), and then getting outlasted by the Niners (149 on the ground), that's the area of gravest concern on the defense.

In all, Atlanta allowed seven runs of 40 yards or more last season. In a division with Doug Martin, Darren Sproles, and Carolina's multi-faceted running attack, they need more consistent play.

The NFC South just might be the league's toughest division. Atlanta's three rivals were all 7-9 last year, and each possesses enough talent to make leaps in 2013. Atlanta's three losses came to each New Orleans, Carolina, and Tampa Bay, so they know the weaknesses.

If the Saints resurge as many suspect, Atlanta could take a backstep. They'll still be a tough team, but there lies a chance they concede the division to New Orleans, and get in as a Wild Card. The division title remains a possibility, but it ain't gonna be easy.

Prediction: 10-6