The Falcons came rolling out of the bye week, winning three out of four games after a miserable 2-6 start. That leaves them at 5-7, atop the NFC South and facing a daunting stretch run as they try to turn an improbable division lead into a playoff berth.
I don't have to tell you this won't be easy, but I thought we'd take a closer look at each game left on the schedule and guess the outcomes.
Week 14: @ Green Bay Packers (9-3)
The Packers are outrageously good. They have the best quarterback in the NFL, two top tier receivers, an effective, hard-charging back and a defense that overcomes some of its personnel challenges with aggressive play. When they're rolling, no team in the NFL can reliably beat them, including the (please insert team here).
The Falcons are coming off a big win and appear to finally have the average, opportunistic defense that so many of us had hoped for to start the season, not to mention a little offensive balance. For all that, they're hitting the road to travel to Lambeau Field against one of the best teams in the NFL, a team that is capable of scoring at will and playing exceptionally well on their home turf. It will take a hell of a performance for the Falcons to walk out of this with a win.
Week 15: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)
Four weeks ago, the Steelers had just finished destroying the Colts and Ravens in back-to-back weeks, and they looked terrifying and unstoppable. For weeks before that, the Steelers alternated close wins and ugly losses to some bad teams, including our friends the Buccaneers. It's hard to get a read on their true talent level, but the Steelers are back on a cold streak, having dropped two to the Jets and Saints and squeaking out a narrow win against the Titans.
The truth is that the Steelers have been a great team in maybe three games all year, and in every other game the combination of an aging defense and up-and-down performances from Ben Roethlisberger has diluted the good work done by the exceptional Le'Veon Bell. This is a good team on balance, one capable of dazzling hot streaks, but one also prone to ugly performances against inferior competition.
I suggested earlier this year that the Steelers game might be winnable if they cooled off, and that's precisely what has happened. This is a winnable game, and I've got the Falcons winning it.
Week 16: @ New Orleans Saints (5-7)
This Saints team just pulled off a nice win against the Pittsburgh Steelers and has an easy late season slate, with the Bears and Falcons the only two semi-challenging games left. For all that, their defense is still a mess, the offense hasn't been consistently good on a game-by-game basis and there's plenty of reports flying around that Sean Payton and Rob Ryan hate one another's guts. All is not well on Canal Street.
For all that, this is a game I can't predict the Falcons will win. The Saints always play Atlanta tough, New Orleans is at home and they're still very capable of putting together a dominant offensive performance and a decent defensive one. The Falcons should come in fired up, given the stakes, but if this one comes down to the wire it's likely a coin flip, and the Saints will have home field advantage. I am regretfully anticipating a narrow loss.
Week 17: vs. Carolina Panthers (3-8-1)
The Panthers are loaded down with bad contracts and cap penalties, and I expected them to regress somewhat from last year. This team is a wild mess beyond my most optimistic expectations.
Cam Newton can't get anything going behind a makeshift offensive line, particularly because he's throwing to one of the league's shallowest receiving corps. The defense is weak and puffy and Ron Rivera has the look of a man planning to fill out job applications in the near future. The cap situation ensures there's no easy fix here, so this terrible Panthers team isn't likely to return to their dominant 2013 form in the next year or so. This is a long-winded way of saying the Falcons, who beat the Panthers earlier this year despite an anemic performance on the road, get to host this team with a playoff berth potentially on the line. If there's any justice in the world, Atlanta will destroy the formerly mighty Teal Cats.
The Falcons can certainly finish out the year with a 2-2 record, then, and perhaps even reach 3-1. There are a ton of outcomes on the table given the variability in this team's play, the difficulty of the remaining schedule and sheer luck that may come into the equation, but I could certainly see this Falcons team finishing 7-9. If that's the case, they'll need the Saints to drop two games against an inferior slate to make their way into the playoffs, which is a possibility but not a lock.
Ultimately, then, this team will be in contention for the division crown until the end, and will hopefully come away with strong play to build on for 2015, when big changes come down the pike.
What are your expectations for the rest of this season?