By Shawn Lealos
When the 2016 NFL season started, the Atlanta Falcons were coming off an 8-8 season and only made some cosmetic improvements to their team. However, in a twist that surprised many experts, the Falcons finished the season winning the NFC South, earning a first round bye with the second-best record in the NFC, and made it to the Super Bowl by beating the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. Here is a look at how the Atlanta Falcons made it to Super Bowl LI.
The 2016 Offseason
After finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs for three straight years, Atlanta needed to make changes, and there were three major shake ups to their lineup. The first was a second-round draft pick, where the Falcons chose Deion Jones; he finished the season as the Falcons’ leader in tackles. The second was bringing in Mohamed Sanu, who earned the starting spot alongside Julio Jones. However, the best free agent pickup was free agent center Alex Mack, who spent the early season with the Cleveland Browns. Mack did so much to shore up the Falcons offensive line that it changed everything in Atlanta.
A Rough Start to the Season
While the Atlanta Falcons hoped for the best this season, they opened up the 2016 NFL season with a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That was going to be a battle all season long with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who remained in contention until the very end of the season. Luckily for the Falcons, they evened things up by beating Tampa Bay on Nov. 4, which gave them the advantage heading into the playoff race.
The Fall of the Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers had dominated the NFC South for years, ever since they took over the division from the Falcons three years ago. However, due to losing key free agents and injuries to star players, the Panthers fell hard in the 2016 NFL season. Carolina opened the season by losing five of their first six games, including a loss to the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers during that stretch. Carolina never recovered and Atlanta reclaimed their division.
Julio Jones Injury Forces Full Team Effort
Julio Jones finished the 2016 NFL season with 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns. The big question is how much he could have finished with if Jones wasn’t injured. However, some argue that Jones’ injury made the Falcons better. During the three seasons that the Falcons struggled, Jones missed one almost completely and then was the only offensive weapon during the next two. This season, Jones originally hurt his ankle in the preseason and suffered numerous injuries throughout the season.
As a result, the Falcons had to rely on names like Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson and the dual running back threat of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. This ended up as the most well-rounded NFL team in the league this season, with weapons all over the offense.
Matt Ryan is the MVP
Those extra weapons made Matt Ryan the NFL MVP this season. In the opening game loss, he threw for 334 yards with two touchdowns and an 112.6 passer rating. That was just the start. Ryan threw for 503 yards in the team’s fourth game of the season against the Carolina Panthers. He had time to pass, thanks to the improved offensive line, and had a lot of weapons. Ryan ended up with a career-high 38 touchdown passes and a career-low seven interceptions.
Because Matt Ryan played so well, others followed. Julio Jones had an amazing game against the Carolina Panthers, with 12 receptions for 300 yards on Oct. 2. Devonta Freeman finished with 1,079 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season. The team finally clicked and made it to Super Bowl 51—only their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history—and now look strong enough to win.