NFL

It's time to take Matt Ryan and the Falcons seriously as Super Bowl contenders

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 18: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons throws a pass during the second half against the San Francisco 49ers at the Georgia Dome on December 18, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 18: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons throws a pass during the second half against the San Francisco 49ers at the Georgia Dome on December 18, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

They've been here all season. No surges, no real lulls, just solid play for 16 straight weeks.

You might not have noticed that the Atlanta Falcons are one of the best teams in football -- they're not playing in prime time and they're not talked about all that frequently amid the constant discussion of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and the Dallas Cowboys, but the Falcons are right there, with 10 wins, an NFC South division title, and a great shot at a first-round bye.

In an NFC where the Cowboys have looked shaky as of late, and no one knows what to make of the Seahawks or Giants (or Lions or Packers), the Falcons have been one of the most consistent teams in football, and they've become more well-rounded as the season has progressed.

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Atlanta has now won its last three games and four out of its last five. They're currently the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs with one game against New Orleans remaining.

The Falcons have been Super Bowl contenders all season, for those who cared to look, but now the entire nation has to look their way.

While they're looking that way, they might notice that Matt Ryan is having one of the best quarterbacking seasons in NFL history.

Yes, you read that right.

There are hundreds of different ways to measure a quarterback's effectiveness, but in a league where dink-and-dunk is not seen as a negative characteristic, Ryan has been throwing the ball downfield with some of the best the league has ever seen.

Going into Saturday's game against the Panthers, Ryan was averaging 9.32 yards per pass attempt this season, the fourth-best mark in the post-merger NFL.

It helps to have Julio Jones and a strong corps of receivers, an excellent (and underrated) offensive line, and a solid run game, but Ryan has taken his game to the next level this year and he's deserving of every MVP vote he'll get, and more.

He's not the only Falcon to take his game to the next level this year -- Vic Beasley, the Falcons first-round draft pick in 2015, has been strong in his sophomore campaign after what some believed was a bust of a rookie year. Beasley has 14.5 sacks on the year -- best in the NFL.

His ability to get to the quarterback this year has been critical to the Falcons' defensive success. Atlanta has one of the best secondaries in the NFL and might have the best 1-2 punch at safety in the league in Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, and the pressure that Beasley has freed them up to terrorize opposing quarterbacks and disrupt the run game.

You can ask Cam Newton how much he enjoys playing the Falcons' defense. Saturday he completed only 18 of 43 passes, throwing for 4.1 yards per attempt and throwing two interceptions.

The Falcons' defense has been better in recent weeks -- Saturday was a high-water mark for the season -- but it doesn't need to be a top-half unit. Atlanta is the only team in the NFL that is averaging more than 30 points per game and they've been held under 24 points only twice this season.

One of those games was against the Eagles -- every team is entitled to a week off, even if the bye was looming -- and the other was when they went to Mile High and beat the Broncos and arguably the league's best D.

They're not just feasting on bad defenses, either.

They put up 43 on the Buccaneers in Week 9, 39 on the Cardinals in Week 12, and 42 on the Rams in Week 14.

The Falcons are going to score, and now they're starting to stop teams, too.

The signs have been there all along -- Atlanta isn't a perfect team, but they're a good one. And in an NFL that's lacking a true juggernaut, that's good enough to consider the Falcons serious Super Bowl contenders.