Four short years ago, when the Falcons were coming off a season with the best record in the NFL, when the Saints were just a year away from being the defending Super Bowl champions, when Josh Freeman fooled everyone into believing he could be the next great young quarterback, when the Panthers just added Cam Newton, the NFC South looked like it may have been one of the greatest divisions the league had ever seen.
Fast forward to today, and the 1-5 Bucs, with their negative-84 point differential, are only two wins out of first place in the division - and that meant that both Mike Smith and Julio Jones spent part of their press conferences today talking playoffs.
"I think our division is wide open", Smith said at The Grove Hotel today, "[the rest of the NFC South] have played as poorly as we have and as inconsistently as we have played, [so] we're right in the thick of the division race. It's going to be critical for us to get a win this week and stay in the race."
Jones referenced a similar line of thinking when asked if this game was a 'must win': "It's a must win, but if we lose, we aren't going to give up on ourselves. We got to keep fighting because we're a team, we're a family, you can't give up on your brother right next to you. Even though we're 2-5, we can turn this thing around, we're one win out from tying the division... we still know we have a chance, we're in it, we can make it to the post season, but we have to win some games."
To think that a 2-5 team could have legitimately argued they were still in playoff contention may have seemed unthinkable before the season started, but a lot of things aren't falling in line with the expected narrative. One journalist today referenced Smith's stated desire during this year's Hard Knocks to build a 'tougher' team, and asked if he felt that he had succeeded in doing so.
"We have not played the type of football we are capable of playing; we have not coached the type of football we are capable of coaching," Smith replied. "We felt we had to become a more physical football team, we made moves in the offseason to do that, and right now it has not translated into the wins that we had anticipated."
Despite this, the weakness of the NFC South keeps the Falcons in contention, and Mike Smith gave his view of the division: "The statistics show right now that this division is having a difficult time winning against teams outside of our division - I think that's an obvious statement... the team that starts playing consistently and most efficiently is going to win our division." Smith went on to boldly claim that "I'm not one for making predictions, but I know this - the team that wins the most games is going to win [the division]... it's not a matter of what your record is, it's just a matter of whether you win your division or not."
Outside of playoff talk, a common theme of conversation was the challenges posed by Sunday's opponents. "Our focus right now is first and foremost to get better, and secondly for us to put a game plan together that puts our players in position to succeed against the Detroit Lions on Sunday. They've got a really good football team, they're leading their division at 5-2, they're playing with a lot of confidence, and its going to be a big challenge this week."
Smith went on to describe some of the Lions' offensive weapons: "Calvin Johnson is obviously one of the top receivers in the NFL, he's big, strong, fast... you've got to flip the resources to him to try and take him out the game. You're never going to be able to totally take him out of the game, but you're going to have put the resources [on him] because if you don't, he's going to make his plays." If Johnson can't go, the Falcons defense still won't have it easy. "Golden [Tate]... plays with a lot of physicality, and he does a very nice job. He's kind of taken over that role when Calvin hasn't been in the lineup, and if Calvin doesn't play our focus will definitely have to go to Golden Tate."
On the other side of the ball, Matt Ryan opened up his press conference by acknowledging that Detroit posses "some of the premier defensive linemen in the game, [Ndamukong] Suh's a very good player, and is playing at a high level... We're going to have to have a good game plan to account for where those guys are, and that's what we're working on right now."
Starting guard Justin Blalock goes further: "they have a lot of talented players up front, but all over their defense they're playing extremely well with a lot of confidence." Jones said that when you watch film, "you notice their DL, with Suh, [Nick] Fairley, those guys up front, they're a handful. We've got to get the ball out of Matt's hands early, with screen to try and slow them down, and when our number's called, me, Rod[dy White], Devin [Hester], Harry [Douglas] if he goes, we gotta make the plays down the field."
Jones acknowledges that the receiving corps as a whole haven't necessarily been helping out their QB. "I just gotta continue to do my job, I can't go out there and be Superman... we've just been so inconsistent," said Jones. He elaborated, "we can't really take those deep plays down the field, those shot plays [due to inuries on the OL], so we just have to catch the ball on slants, hitches, just routine catches. We've got to catch those balls and beat man-to-man," continuing that a lot of teams are playing man coverage on the Falcons, essentially daring the Atlanta receivers to try and break their tackles.
Jones went on to show some real frustration with the state of the season. "We have so many playmakers on our team, we can't go out there and get three-and-outs, that's unacceptable... we're just too good to be doing that. We're missing by inches every time, where somebody misses their block, the receivers are not picking up the right guy, dropping balls on routine catches - that's what 2-5 teams do, and we've got to change that."
In order to get that chance, it will take better play by the offensive line, and that won't be easy with an ever-changing cast of characters thanks to the high rate of injury, the most recent of which was to center Peter Konz. One of the biggest issues with having a changing OL is trying to build chemistry during the season between members of a unit that traditionally needs to have a strong bond to get the most success. When I asked Blalock how one can go about doing so, he answered that "unfortunately the only way to build that is to play. You can only do so much in practice, and that's what we try to do out here and in the film room, making sure we're making our calls the same, doing everything we possibly can do - but the best way to do it is to forge it in the fire."
One new piece that needs to establish chemistry not just with his fellow linemen but with this quarterback is Konz's back up, James Stone. Blalock was impressed with Stone: "For a guy to come in against the defense he did last week and make all those calls and ID those fronts, that's special... he's a smart guy, wise beyond his years, nad the guy can play. I think the biggest thing is just getting time with the rest of the guys, building the rapport, but he's going to be fine with the calls - he's just got to get a feel for how the other guys play around him."
Ryan echoed Blalock's sentiments: "I think James has done a great job since the first day he walked into the building," Ryan said, though admitting "he and I have to advance where we're at and our relationship as fast as we can, so we'll spend some extra time... watch[ing] a little extra film with him, and just go through a couple of things to make sure that we're both on the same page, and we're both ready to go on Sunday."
If the protection can improve, then the Falcons offense - which Smith admitted had "regressed over the past couplel of weeks" - may be able to recapture some of the success they had on their lone touchdown drive in Baltimore last week. When asked what they did differently on that drive, Smith said "we were able to convert on third down, and when you convert on third down, you have more offensive snaps... our protection held up a little better, we made some adjustments at half time in terms of what we wanted to do protection-wise, and we were able to move the ball that one drive."
It will take more than one good drive to come out with the win on Sunday - but from some of the Falcons' comments today, as long as the rest of the NFC South remains as futile as they have been so far, the season is far from over for the Falcons. As Mike Smith said today, "This is something that I think is going to go down to the wire. It's very bunched. It's a two game difference between first and last place and there's a lot of football to be played over the next nine weeks"