5-at-10: Falcons face a make-or-break year, NFL season projections, AP Top 25 reaction

Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson (7) warms up before the first half of an NFL preseason football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cincinnati Bengals, Friday, Aug. 18, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Falcons preview

Lifelong fans of the Atlanta Falcons are forever familiar with phrases like, "This has the chance to be a big year" or "This could be the turning point."

For a franchise that never posted back-to-back winning seasons until Matt Ryan came to town, optimism is needed. And all too often empty.

But, from a cynical columnist who can recall being an 8-year-old kid standing in the rolled out bleachers of Fulton County Stadium screaming for Steve Bartkowski and William Andrews to find a way, this truly is a year of great opportunity for the Falcons.

That great opportunity is fueled by a slew of young offensive difference makers, from tight end Kyle Pitts, wide out Drake London or rookie running back Bijan Robinson, who in the preseason has turned more heads than Beyoncé walking naked through Times Square.

It's an opportunity galvanized by a completely overhauled defense that has added a slew of veteran additions through free agency and trades as well as resigned some bona fide dudes. Yes, Jalen Carter would look great in the middle of this crew, but like Norman Dale told the Hickory students and fans at the season-opening pep rally, "I hope you would support who we are and not who we are not."

And all of those reasons for optimism are not as critical for the opportunity before them in real terms of playoff contention. Simply put the NFC South is dreadful.

Which team in the division scares you?

Carolina with a rookie QB?

Tampa Bay with the artists formerly known as Baker Mayfield at QB in his first year with the Bucs?

New Orleans with retread Derek Carr at QB in his first year with the Saints as they try to navigate out of salary-cap purgatory?

None of those three are world-beaters — and no, neither are these Falcons — but they are younger and more explosive than all of their South rivals.

And amazingly, they have the most tenured QB in the division in terms of connection with the staff and the franchise.

Yep, Desmond Ridder and his four starts with the Falcons is exactly four more than all the other QB1s in the NFC South with NFC South teams.

That's a good thing, and I have cautiously high hopes for Ridder, who should have been on the field much earlier than the final month of the season.

Atlanta was close in several games in 2022 — the Falcons finished 7-10 (one game behind division winner Tampa) but lost eight games decided by a single possession — and that was with Marcus Mariota being prominently involved for the majority of the season.

The future is bright, right? That's what Falcons fans have forever tried to convince ourselves, and maybe this fall will be fantastic.

The reality though has reason for optimism, either way.

If the Falcons play well, they will host at least one playoff game. The schedule is doable and ranked by sharpfootballanalysis.com as the easiest this season.

If the Falcons flatline, then we will know the answer on head coach Arthur Smith and Ridder, too.

Which will lead us into an off season with a bevy of college QBs looking like stars.

Good times, which is what Falcons fans always want to believe.

Optimism before realism, right Birds backers?

NFL prop options

So, we're a day away from the start of the NFL season.

(Side question: Is September the best sports month of the year? Discuss.)

Which leads us to the season projections, which has much more meaning in the legalized gambling realm.

Playoff teams in the AFC — Jets, Bengals, Jags and Chiefs as division winners, with the Chargers, Steelers and Bills as the wildcard teams.

Playoff teams in the NFC — Eagles, Lions, Falcons and 49ers as division winners, with the Cowboys, Giants and Seahawks as the wildcard teams.

We'll take the 49ers and the Chiefs as the 1 seeds.

We'll take Jets over Bills, Bengals over Steelers and Jags over Chargers in the first round in the AFC. In the NFC, we'll go Eagles over Seahawks, Lions over Giants and Cowboys over Falcons.

In the semis, we'll go Chiefs over Jags and Jets over Bengals in the AFC and Cowboys over 49ers and Eagles over Lions in the NFC.

We'll take Jets-Eagles in the Super Bowl.

Which leads us to individual awards.

MVP — Aaron Rodgers, yes, it's Patty Mahomes trophy to lose, but the stars have aligned, and if you backing the Jets, Rodgers is going to be everywhere this season.

Offensive player of the year — Christian McCaffery, the 49ers RB is going to top 1,000 yards rushing and receiving if he stays healthy. And know this: C-Mac in a full year of Kyle Shanahan's offense is going to be nasty.

Defensive player of the year — Micah Parsons, the Dallas LB is arguably the most talented player on either side of the ball, but this is a tough category considering the skill sets of Sauce Gardner, Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt.

Coach of the year — Dan Campbell with the Lions. Yeah we all thought his rah-rah high school stuff was bloviating word salad. But dude has redirected one of the most forlorn franchises in the league.

Offensive rookie — Bijan Robinson. Dude, this one is a dunk if he stays healthy. Heck, here's a bet that he leads the league in rushing considering the way Arthur Smith loves to run more than anyone this side of Usian Bolt.

Defensive rookie — Jalen Carter, and yes the Falcons picked one rookie of the year and passed on the other.

Comeback player of the year — Demar Hamilton. This one is clear right? Dude almost died on the field and if he even puts a helmet on and steps inside the lines, that maybe the greatest comeback of all time.

AP poll and reaction

So the first full AP poll was released Tuesday.

There naturally was overreaction and underreaction.

(Side note: Any poll voter who is not willing to release his ballot should not have a ballot in my opinion.)

Here is a look at the poll and some of the reactions.

And in truth, if I had one, here's my top 10 based on what I saw over the last 10 days and nothing to do with the preseason projections or the flawed premise of voting where you think these teams will end up.

1. FSU — clearly the best performance by any team in Week 0 or Week 1 by smashing LSU.

2. Alabama — MTSU is not LSU, but Bama handled its business as efficiently and completely as anyone in the blowout bonanza that was Week 1.

3. USC — Wanna beat the Trojans, better be prepared to score 50 — even if you are the San Francisco 49ers.

4. Notre Dame — The Irish has yet to be tested, is 2-0 and has a dude at QB1.

5. Georgia — Started slow, but I blame Bobo more than Carson Beck for that. Side question: Shouldn't every Georgia offensive staff meeting start with this question: How are we going to get Brock Bowers 15 touches Saturday? Discuss. Somewhere Bearddawg is vigorously nodding his head.

6. Washington — Michael Pennix Jr. will be a Heisman finalist. Book that.

7. Tennessee — Slow starting, strong finishing.

8. Penn State — PSU as the top Big Ten club? Yep. Beating West Virginia by 23 — even with the comically bat beat by covering the number with a TD with six seconds left — is better than beating Western Carolina by 27 or Indiana by 20.

9. Duke — Other than FSU, who had a more impressive win?

10. UNC — Drake Maye likely will join Michael Pennix Jr. in a crowded front row at the Downtown Athletic Club in early December.

This and that

— You know the rules. Here's Paschall on UT's ability to throw it a ton and still not throw INTs.

— This is super cool, and I am glad the TFP spent the money to send a reporter to cover local hero Larry Taylor get his Medal of Honor from Joe Biden on Tuesday.

— If you have not signed up for Jay's Plays — our afternoon email with gambling picks and jokes (and often neither connect) — here's the link. And here's one more incentive: We're giving away tickets to the UT game on Saturday. So there's that.

— Speaking of tickets on Saturday, what do you have the over/under attendance for UTC-Kennesaw State at Finley this weekend? And, which side will have more fans, UTC or KSU?

— Braves played. Braves lost. It happens I suppose, but when it does, it almost always costs me money. Side question: Mike Soroka, cooked?

— We debated a few of the captain picks for the U.S. side, because, well, that's who we are. Reading about European boss Luke Donald's captain's picks from earlier this week, this Adrian Meronk fellow has a real beef about getting snubbed.

Today's questions

Which way Wednesday starts this way:

Which team wins the NFC South?

Which team will win the Super Bowl?

Which player are you picking for MVP?

Which is your favorite month in terms of sports?

As for today, Sept. 6, let's review.

Joseph P. Kennedy — alleged bootlegger and patriarch of the Kennedy clan — would have been 135 today.

Rushmore of political families in U.S. history. Go, and I don't think the Wamps are there yet.