The Atlanta Falcons are not clear-cut favorites to win the NFC South. And that's partially their own fault.
Each team in the division has its weaknesses, but on paper the Falcons should be the obvious favorite. There should be no debate.
The waters get muddied because of what teams like the 2008 version of the Falcons tend to do each year. They come out of nowhere and turn everyone's preseason predictions into birdcage liner.
There are plenty of reasons why the Falcons aren't the consensus pick in the NFC South, but few of them have to do with the actual construction of the team.
Previewers can over-emphasize statistical trends and talk themselves out of picking what is clearly the most talented team.
They'll talk about how a team that makes such a huge leap from one season to the next always falls back to earth the following season. Or, in the Falcons case, they'll point out that the team has never had back-to-back winning seasons.
But they can't see the trees because they're too busy looking at the forest.
Here is a short list of why the Atlanta Falcons are the best team in the NFC South.
They have a group of offensive skill players that will clearly be the best in the division.
You can't tell me that any other NFC South team will trot out a more prolific group than Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, and Roddy White.
Carolina? Yes the running backs are fantastic. And Steve Smith is still a stud.
But Jake Delhomme's skills—which were only average in his best seasons—have taken a nosedive, as his performance in last year's playoffs attests. His career is teetering on the brink of extinction as his performance this year will show.
And do you think any defensive coaches are lying awake at night trying a figure out a way to stop Carolina tight end Jeff King? Didn't he play for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early '90's?
New Orleans? Drew Brees is going to get his yards, and he makes each of their receivers a threat. But Jeremy Shockey is a walking attitude problem and Reggie Bush is about to be inducted in the first-round bust hall of fame.
The defense will not be as awful as everyone thinks.
The Falcons' secondary is a potential time bomb. But look who they had back there last year. Dominique Foxworth, Brent Grimes, Erik Coleman and Lawyer Milloy were the starters at season's end. That's not exactly a lockdown group.
Mike Smith masked a weakness (which got torched on several occasions last season) by emphasizing a strength. He saved John Abraham for obvious passing downs, which put more pressure on the quarterback and helped take some of the heat off of the DB's.
It stands to reason that a similar plan with similar personnel should produce similar results—namely a bend-but-don't-break defense that gives up yards but not touchdowns.
Drew Brees will probably have at least one huge game against the Falcons (like he did last year), but a bad secondary is not the worst thing to have in a division that features Delhomme and Byron Leftwich as opposing starting quarterbacks.
Okay, this is not exactly a talent. But the pairing of Mike Smith as head coach and Thomas Dimitroff as general manager looks like something that's going to be in Atlanta for the long haul.
Although it's only their second season together there appears to be an organizational stability that hasn't been in Atlanta since...well, ever.
It's not exactly Pittsburgh Steelers stability or New England Patriots stability, but in the NFC South, what the Falcons have appears to be setting the standard.
And if you don't think that effects how the team plays, just ask the guys that played on the unstable watch of Bobby Petrino.
We're at the end of the article and there's been no mention of Michael Vick.
In Atlanta, that's a very good thing.