The Chip Kelly experiment continues as new starting quarterback Sam Bradford takes over one of the NFL’s best offenses. Kelly, of course, is well known for his offensive innovations and has helped the Philadelphia Eagles to back-to-back 10-plus win seasons. The Eagles get a chance to continue and get back to the postseason when they open Monday Night Football with a trip to the Georgia Dome to face the Atlanta Falcons. Bradford, who has missed the better part of the past two seasons with knee injuries, is finally healthy enough and is in command of the up-tempo Eagles offense. He is surrounded by a wealth of talent including last year’s NFL rushing leader RB DeMarco Murray. Jordan Matthews and rookie Nelson Agholor give Bradford youth but ample talent at the wide receiver positions. Eagles vs Falcons odds favor Philadelphia on the road by a field goal (-3) while NFL picks for week 1 on the over/under total are set at 55½.
The former Rams QB, Bradford was the 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year after starting all 16 games. He then played in roughly half of the team’s next 64 games suffering knee injuries in consecutive seasons. The Eagles opponent, Atlanta, welcomes new head coach Dan Quinn, former defensive coordinator in Seattle. Quinn’s first task will be improving a defense that finished dead last in the league in total yards allowed per game (398.3). Quinn and the Falcons selected undersized hybrid LB/DE Vic Beasley of Clemson in the first round and acquired Adrian Clayborn in the offseason to help. Along with LB Justin Durant, the defense should improve at least enough to take some of the pressure off of the offense. If Atlanta is going to have any chance of covering the spread as home underdogs in Eagles vs Falcons odds, the defense must be able to slow down the potent Philly offense.
Quarterback Matt Ryan enjoyed his fourth straight 4,000-yard season last year, but he and the rest of the Falcons offense must work under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan this season. There have been some struggles with the new zone-running based offense and problems with the offensive line have not helped. Atlanta has actually beaten Philadelphia the past two times that the two teams have met. Ryan threw for seven touchdowns in those two meetings. It is doubtful he will have that kind of success Monday night. Look for Philadelphia to have a lot of offensive success against a struggling Atlanta defense. The week 1 season opener (Monday, September 14th) between the Eagles and Falcons can be seen live on ESPN at 6:55pm EST from the Georgia Dome.
If there is one division in the NFL that any of the four teams competing could win, it would be the NFC South. The Carolina Panthers became the first team to win consecutive division titles (2013, 2014) last season but did so with a less than impressive 7-8-1 record. The Panthers could pull off a three-peat this year but it won't be easy with high powered offenses in New Orleans and Atlanta that will be looking to regain dominance in the conference. That being said, the Atlanta Falcons are favored at +200 in 2015 NFC South odds to win with division predictions listing the Carolina Panthers at +210, the New Orleans Saints at +225 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at +550.
The Atlanta Falcons looked to be a team bound for the Super Bowl in 2012 leading the 49ers (17-0) in the NFC Championship game but failed to put any points on the board in the second half letting San Francisco steal a 28-24 victory. Since then, it seems the Falcons have yet to recover. Could the 2015 season finally get the dirty birds dancing again? Bookmakers certainly think so and with an offense featuring QB Matt Ryan and WR's Julio Jones and Roddy White; anything is possible. That is of course, if they all can stay healthy. RB Devonta Freeman will be counted on to create the balance needed so that Ryan won't need to force risky passes having thrown 14-INT's last year. The defense will most likely be the Achilles heel for Atlanta who finished 27th in scoring and 21st in rushing last season.
The Carolina Panthers had been one of the early favorites in 2015 NFC South odds and predictions to win the division but that was before losing WR Kelvin Benjamin for the season after tearing his ACL during the preseason. QB Cam Newton will now need to rely heavily on WR's Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess and TE Greg Olsen to pick up the slack. Easier said than done. RB Jonathan Stewart will receive a majority of the rushing attempts but don't be surprised to see rookie Cameron Artis-Payne (Auburn) making his presence known. On the defensive side of the ball, LB's Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis anchor a squad that has been a top ten defense for the past three years. If the defense can make it four in a row, the Panthers could easily win the division depending on how the offense copes with the loss of Benjamin.
The New Orleans Saints made perhaps one of the biggest off-season trades by sending TE Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks to upgrade the offensive line by acquiring Max Unger. Also gone is WR Kenny Stills who took his talent to Miami but any team that has QB Drew Brees behind center will find away to put points on the board. Brees finished last season throwing 4,952-yards for 33-touchdowns and at the age of 36, still shows no signs of slowing down. Look for WR Brandin Cooks to receive a majority of the looks down the sideline while TE Josh Hill will be counted on to replace the production of Graham in 3rd down situations. RB Mark Ingram will receive a majority of the rushing plays once again but will have a formidable duo in C.J. Spiller and Khirly Robinson as backups. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will need to tighten up the secondary if the Saints are to have any chance of winning the division in 2015 NFC South odds since finishing last season 31st in total defense.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took QB Jameis Winston (Florida State) as the #1 overall pick in the draft to help anchor an offense that finished last year with a dreadful 75.2% production rating. Head coach Lovie Smith also proceeded to use 12 of his 13 draft picks on offensive players to help right the ship so to speak. Winston will have a towering pair of WR's at his disposable with Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson but whether or not the offensive line can protect the former FSU star long enough to find them remains to be seen. RB Doug Martin will look to better last season's mark of 494-yards for 2-touchdowns if he can stay healthy. The defense will have the foundation of DT Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David while the secondary is littered with former Smith players from Chicago. If the defense can gel under the Tampa 2 scheme and Winston matures quickly, there is no reason that the Buccaneers couldn't be playing for the division title.
Just three short seasons ago, the Atlanta Falcons won 13 games and were headed to a Super Bowl before blowing a 17-point lead in the 2012 NFC Championship Game. Atlanta followed in 2013 with a rash of injuries to an offensive line and WR Julio Jones that left the team struggling to finish 4-12. The Falcons improved to a 6-10 a year ago, but it just wasn’t enough and head coach Mike Smith was sent packing. The Dan Quinn era begins in 2015 and the first order of business is fixing a defense that was dead last in the NFL last season. No team gave up more yards per game (398.2) than the Atlanta Falcons. The good thing is that Quinn was the architect of the Seattle defense that helped the Seahawks reach consecutive Super Bowls.
Although Quinn might have the resume, Super Bowl predictions for 2015 are not expecting him to help the Falcons reach the championship this year. NFL odds have listed Atlanta as +4000 longshots to lift the Lombardi trophy next February and +2200 to win the NFC Conference. That being said, the Falcons are favored to win the NFC South division (+200) over the Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers. Quinn and his new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris went out in the free agent market and picked up a few Seahawks cast offs. Cornerback Philip Adams and defensive end O’Brien Schofield were signed along with names such of LB Justin Durant of Dallas and LB Brooks Reed of Houston. Quinn went out and got the edge rusher he was looking for in the first round of this year’s draft when he selected Clemson’s Vic Beasley.
On offense, Atlanta has one of the best group of skill players around. Quarterback Matt Ryan is a franchise player and when healthy, Julio Jones (104 receptions, 1,593 yards) is one of the league’s best receivers. Add in WR Roddy White and even Devin Hester and the Falcons have some weapons. The problem on offense is the running game. The Falcons averaged just 93.6 yards per game in 2014, 24th in the NFL. Steven Jackson was the team’s leading rusher with 707 yards, averaging just 3.7 yards a carry. He is gone and second-year pro Devonta Freeman or rookie Tevin Coleman will be the starter. Coleman rushed for over 2,000 yards last year at Indiana and whether its him or Freeman, they will run behind a line that will shift to a zone blocking scheme to take advantage of the team’s smaller faster offensive linemen.
Atlanta should have no problem winning the 2015 NFC South but Quinn and the Falcons will find out how far they must go to defy Super Bowl predictions and get back into the playoff picture when their season starts with three straight games against teams from the NFC East. After taking on Chip Kelly’s Eagles at home on the season opening Monday night, Atlanta travels to the New York Giants and Dallas in weeks two and three. After that stretch, though, the Falcons play just two more games against teams that had winning records in 2014 – Houston (9-7) in week four and Indianapolis (11-5) in week eleven.
Falcons Update (9/12/15): Atlanta are now +4000 favorites in Super Bowl predictions, +2200 to win the NFC Conference and +200 to win the NFC South.