Falcons And Vikes Have Steep Climbs Ahead

Jun 16, 2014 3:03 PM EST

First in a series.

Parity is the name of the game in the NFL. Or is it?

My next two columns will focus on teams who were in the playoffs in 2012 but fell to the status of also-rans in 2013. I’ll check the tea leaves for clues into whether the teams will make it back to the playoffs in 2014.

This column will focus on the Atlanta Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings.

The Falcons have been a team on the brink, getting tabbed as the team to win the Super Bowl by several pontificators. They’ve made the playoffs several years before a terrible season in 2013. They reached the NFC championship after finishing 13-3 in 2012, losing to the 49ers, but fell to 4-12 in 2013. Their defense, which was solid in 2012, was awful in 2013.

The Vikings grabbed a wildcard berth in 2012 with a 10-6 mark, riding the incredible season of Adrian Peterson. Then the wheels fell off in 2013. The quarterback play and pass defense were wretched and the secondary the worst in the league.

One of the obvious things striking any observer is how quickly a team can rise or fall. You never stay the same. If you don’t get better, you’re going to get worse, because some other teams in your division will improve. The difference between victory and defeat can be thin. A key injury or two, some unlucky calls and a formerly good team’s in trouble. And then you consider that players are in their primes only a few years, then fall off. It’s hard to know when that will happen.

Your division may get tougher. If you do well, your schedule’s harder.

Curiously, the teams shared one trait. They both had plenty of close losses early. The Falcons started 1-4. They suffered some agonizingly close losses at the beginning of the season. They had a chance to beat the Patriots, only to have a last-second pass go off the hands of Roddy White. They blew a home game against the Jets.

The Vikings, meanwhile, blew leads against the Bears (in Chicago) and the Browns (at home), with terrible defense marking both games. They won a home game in London, then lost four in a row to be 1-7. Season over.

Both teams lost close games. Both teams could not hold a lead. And both teams had a problem with turnovers, especially at the end of games. The Falcons gave up 443 points, the Vikings a league-worst 480 – just four points from a record.

But that’s where the similarity ends. On offense, the teams had drastically different problems and needs.

The Falcons have a very good quarterback, Matt Ryan. He had a solid year statistically, if not a great one. But his protection wasn’t very good, he didn’t have a good running game to rely on, and he had to lead his team from behind too many times.  Julio Jones missed 11 games and wasn’t great in the five he appeared in.

The Vikings had serious issues with quarterbacking. Christian Ponder could not read defenses, telegraphed passes and missed throws. Matt Cassel was a bit better, but he’s really a backup.

But the Vikings have a good, if not great, offensive line, and plenty of weapons, including Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Kyle Rudolph. They scored lots of points when they weren’t turning the ball over.

The Vikings had some coaching issues in 2013. The defensive coordinator, Alan Williams, was a joke. Sometimes players were out of position and in the wrong defense at the end of games. The head coach, Leslie Frazier, gave Ponder too many chances, then put in Josh Freeman, who proceeded to have one of the worst games anyone’s ever had behind center. Rick Spielman, the GM, has to take part of the blame. Ponder was his guy. And he was behind cutting Antoine Winfield at the beginning of the season when just about everyone in Minnesota knew the secondary wasn’t any good. The Vikings had a dumpster fire in the secondary. Their defensive line, headed by Jared Allen, was old and couldn’t get to the quarterback.

The Falcons have some roster problems. Remember that they went out and traded several picks to get Julio Jones, thinking that they were one player away.  Well, it sure didn’t look like it in 2013. They had problems with the offensive line and secondary, and their pass rush wasn’t good enough.

Two teams from their division were vastly improved in 2013, the Saints and the Panthers. The Saints had their coach, Sean Payton, back after Bountygate, and their defense was much-improved. The Panthers rode a terrific defense and an improved Cam Newton to the playoffs. The Falcons beat no good teams and were 0-6 in their division.

It doesn’t help Atlanta that their one Pro Bowler from the season, Tony Gonzalez, retired. Nor that starting linebacker Sean Witherspoon is out for the year. The Falcons have none of their linebacking starters from the great season of 2012, when the team allowed only 299 points.

Most commentators rate the Falcons draft a B, possibly higher. Jake Matthews is a great pick in the first round. After that, it’s not clear. Ra’Shede Hageman might help at defensive end, but who’s going to run the ball?

The Vikings, by all accounts, had an excellent draft. They went with defense first, selecting UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr ninth in the first round, then found the man likely to be their future quarterback with the final pick of the round, Teddy Bridgewater. I would guess that Cassel will start the first few games and Bridgewater will start by mid-season, if not sooner.

Minnesota had some strong free-agent pickups, signing Linval Joseph as nose tackle and Captain Munnerlyn as a cornerback. Other key signings included DT Corey Wootton and corner Derek Cox.

Mike Zimmer’s gotten solid reviews as the incoming coach. But this team has a long way to go, at least until the quarterback position is settled. At least their coaching is better. Norv Turner might not be a great head coach, but he’s an excellent offensive coordinator. The team’s play calling in 2013 was poor.

Revealingly, both teams are interested in Brandon Flowers, recently let go by the Chiefs. The Falcons are also looking for linebacking help.

The Falcons also had a solid free agency, picking up Devin Hester, corner Javier Arenas, defensive lineman Tyson Jackson, nose tackle Paul Soliai and guard Jon Asamoah.

Both teams have done what they can. Is it enough?

Probably not. I don’t think the Falcons did enough to improve their defense, and they have a gaping hole at linebacker. Hester’s receiving talent is questionable, though he’s a great return man. He might be a year or two past his prime.

The Vikings will be better on defense, but they’re filling a lot of holes. But how long will it take Bridgewater to take the quarterback’s reins? It’s the million-dollar question.

The Vikes have one advantage over the Falcons: their division. It was pitiful in 2013, though it figures to be better with quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler healthy. I think the Vikings will be competitive and improve as the season progresses. Playoffs? No.

The Falcons are in a tough division. How do they battle the Panthers and Saints? The Panthers might be due for a bit of a fall, but not the Saints, who had a great draft.

The Falcons have an outside shot at a wild-card berth, but it’s probably not going to happen. The NFC has too many good teams already.

The Vikings will be a good team in 2015. I think they’re a year away from building a contending team. But in 2014, they’ll have growing pains.