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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, October 12, 2016 at 11:16 AM

We’ve seen this movie before—the Atlanta Falcons get out to a blazing start, but find a way to disappoint before the season is over. Most of the time that disappointment comes in the playoffs, but other times—like last year when they started 5-0 before losing eight of the last eleven—it happens before that. Now this season it’s more of the same—the Falcons are 4-1, they have a two-game lead on the field in the NFC South and have quickly become a heavy (-400) favorite to win the division.

Will this Atlanta team disappoint again? Or will they hold the divisional lead and maybe even make that 8-1 price tag to win the NFC title (a price that puts the behind only the Packers, Seahawks and Vikings) worth investing in? Let’s take a clear-eyed look at their strengths and weaknesses…

The strength clearly starts with the offense as a whole. Matt Ryan is playing at an MVP level. He’s getting 10.4 yards-per-attempt. To call that the best in the NFL is accurate, but it doesn’t do it justice. The gap between Ryan and the second-best in this category (San Diego’s Philip Rivers) is the same as the gap between #2 and #24. Ryan is essentially lapping the field when it comes to creating big plays.

That becomes a lot easier when you have a receiver like Julio Jones. He’s one of just three wideouts to be averaging more than 20 yards-per-catch. The other two are Pittsburgh’s Sammie Coates and Philip Dorsett in Indy. Unlike those two, Jones has an established body of work producing at this level, meaning that the big-play attack can be reasonably expected to continue.

Nor are the big plays limited to the passing game. Devonta Freeman averages better than five yards a pop, seventh-best among running backs. The offensive line is playing consistent football and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is at his best when the play-action game is a threat. Freeman is making it a potent threat indeed.

With that kind of individual production, it’s no surprise to see Atlanta at the top of the NFL in points scored. But the story has a flip side. This team’s strengths and weaknesses are as crystal clear as any in the league and the defense has been horrific.

Despite the pedigree of head coach Dan Quinn as the coordinator for Seattle’s Legion of Boom in their back-to-back Super Bowl trips of 2013-14, it’s not translating in Atlanta. The Falcons rank 26th in points allowed. Quinn is finding that success was easier with Richard Sherman on a corner than it is now with Robert Alford. Atlanta’s interior on the defensive front is weak. As for the linebackers, we’ll just point out that they were desperate enough to sign A.J. Hawk off the waiver wire and leave it at that.

If the defensive play continues at this level, it’s hard to see Atlanta offering much value over the long haul. They can win the division, particularly with Carolina flailing so badly, but at (-400) there’s no money to be made there. And bad defense will make it harder to cover pointspreads and certainly to cash an 8-1 ticket to reach the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, Quinn has some individual pieces on defense, particularly in the secondary. If he can get this defense to even a league-average unit, Atlanta will have a chance to do big things. The development of this unit is what NFL bettors have to monitor closely on a week-to-week basis .

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