This article is part of our Team Previews series.
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Falcons entered 2011 as one of the favorites to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, as they were coming off a 13-3 season and had bolstered their offensive attack by moving up in the draft to select wideout Julio Jones. Unfortunately, the Falcons struggled to get in sync early in the year and stumbled to a 3-3 start. Although they couldn't catch the Saints for the division title, the Falcons won three of their final four games to clinch a Wild Card berth. With momentum headed into the postseason, Atlanta backers hoped that it would finally be the year that QB Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith would add a playoff win to their resumes.
Alas, the Falcons' offense, which ranked seventh in the league in points per game, was outscored by their defense 2-0 in a 24-2 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants. Although the team's offense faltered in the playoffs, Ryan continued to improve in his fourth year in the league. He threw for a career best 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns, and spread the ball around to young guns and aging veterans alike. Roddy White and Julio Jones each caught eight touchdown passes, while future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez caught seven, leaving him five shy of becoming the first tight end with 100 career touchdown receptions.
Meanwhile, Michael Turner was one of two NFL running backs who carried the ball at least 300 times in 2011, and