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2017 NFL playoffs: What’s Atlanta’s best path to a championship?

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It’s one filled with tough games, unfortunately.

Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons need to win two games to get into the Super Bowl, and one more game to be crowned as NFL champions for the first time in franchise history. While we think they can beat anyone because we love them, it’s fair to wonder what the easiest possible path to the championship would be.

Note I say easiest and not easy, because this is not an easy field to take on. Aside from the Lions (who the Falcons can’t face in the Divisional Round) and three longshots from the AFC (who aren’t making the Super Bowl), there’s not a truly easy matchup in the bunch, which means the Falcons have to be sharp to win. We’re just interested in sussing out the path of least resistance, here.

My goal here is to be as realistic as possible. Obviously the Detroit Lions would be Atlanta’s ideal matchup in the Championship Game, for example, but the chances of that happening are extremely remote, so we’re not going to entertain them. Similarly, while I’d love to put one of the worst teams in the AFC in the Super Bowl for Atlanta to tee off on, there’s only probably 2-3 teams that have a realistic chance of coming out of that conference.

Divisional Round: #3 Seattle Seahawks

You can make a strong case for the New York Giants here, though the chances of the Giants and Lions being the two teams standing. The Giants also have a rough defense, though.

The Seahawks would normally be a team I wanted no part of, given how good they’ve been for the last few years, but things have changed a bit this year. Russell Wilson is having a down year by his standards, the ground game has been wracked by ineffective play and injuries, and the defensive secondary is more vulnerable without Earl Thomas, who landed on injured reserve. The Falcons lost the last time these two teams met, sure, but they put up a lot of points, the offense may even be better today, and the defense is looking a little more capable, even if the results aren’t necessarily there. I don’t necessarily anticipate that Seattle will be able to put up 30-plus points this time around, and the Falcons should still be able to, albeit with some hiccups.

There’s still a lot to dislike with this matchup, between Wilson’s ability to evade pressure and make accurate throws to a relentless, scary front seven and still-opportunistic secondary. The Seahawks make you nervous because there’s still so very much talent here, and they’ve been in the postseason pressure cooker for the last three years and haven’t flinched much. In a very strong NFC field, though, Seattle’s the matchup I’m hoping for.

The team I don’t want to play is the Green Bay Packers, who have Aaron Rodgers engulfed by elite flames at the moment and a good enough defense to get things done. The Falcons just barely beat Green Bay the last time out, and that team didn’t look as good as this one does now.

Championship Round: #1 Dallas Cowboys

Again, I want no part of the Packers, who I think are probably going to beat the Giants. If I could take the Giants with their strong defense but middling offense, I would, but I’m not that optimistic they’ll get this far.

That leaves the Packers versus the Cowboys, and if I have to choose between the two, I’m going with Dallas.

This is going to seem like disrespect directed at the #1 seed in the NFC, a team with one of the best rookie quarterbacks ever, one of the best rookie running backs in recent memory (if not ever), and a defense that is good enough to keep them in games, and is coming on strong at the end of the season. That’s a recipe for a deep run, and if for some reason Prescott should falter—something I don’t expect—they have the best backup quarterback in the NFL in Tony Romo.

So why would we want Atlanta to play Dallas, instead of Green Bay? I can’t get away from the thought that this Green Bay team is just too good with a blazing hot Aaron Rodgers and a strong defense, and while it’s not a clear-cut, obvious choice, I’d still rather play Dallas. Atlanta can win a shootout with that team, which has an efficient passing game but not necessarily a high-octane one, and the Cowboys defense isn’t good enough to keep a lid on the Falcons for four quarters. Ezekiel Elliott is a massive problem, obviously, but Dallas is still the best of some bad choices.

Super Bowl: #2 Kansas City Chiefs

We all know, I think, that the team coming out of the AFC is probably going to be the New England Patriots. I want no part of the New England Patriots.

Instead, let’s take the Chiefs. That loss to Kansas City earlier this year stung

Out of the entire AFC, the Chiefs, Steelers, and Pats are the only three teams I can see being viable contenders for a championship, and out of those, I’ll take the team least likely to muster the kind of offensive explosion that dooms the Falcons.

Despite what the team’s (relative) offensive explosion against Atlanta would suggest, this is a middle-of-the-road offense, and Alex Smith gets it done by connecting with his playmakers on shorter routes and letting them do the work. It’s not easy to contain Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill is incredibly dangerous on returns in particular, but the Chiefs simply can’t run up 30 points every game without some help from their defense.

The defense is intimidating, too, as they held the Falcons to a relatively pedestrian 28 points. Even so, the Falcons had a real shot at winning until the very end of that game, minus the incredibly weird Matt Ryan pick-two, and I’d like their shot of hanging around and potentially winning should this rematch happen.

The Steelers are a rough offense to face, the kind of team that can hang with the Falcons on that side of the ball, while New England looks like the best team in football this year yet again. I’ll take my chances with Kansas City, thanks.

If the Falcons fall short, this season won’t be a failure in my eyes. With this path through the postseason, though, I think they might be able to make a deep run. What’s your preferred path?