Remember the Week 9 loss to Carolina? The Falcons had recently snapped their three-game losing streak with a victory against the Jets, only to lose a hotly contested road match-up with the Panthers (that, honestly, they should have won if not for a dropped Julio TD). They were sitting at 4-4 with the Saints and the Panthers gaining ground in the division. Things were dire for Atlanta’s playoff hopes, and fans were wondering if the team would even be competitive down the stretch.
Fast forward five weeks, and the Falcons have rebounded in a big way. They’ve gone 4-1 against the most difficult stretch of their schedule, defeating three potential playoff contenders in Dallas, Seattle, and New Orleans. The only loss was a narrow, defensive slugfest that ended up going in the Vikings favor—a team that could very well end up as the #1 seed with Philadelphia losing QB Carson Wentz for the season.
Things have changed for the Falcons, and they’re now completely in the driver’s seat in the NFC South at 8-5. Atlanta has three games remaining—all against NFC South opponents—and three victories would actually deliver them the division crown despite their mid-season slump. The Falcons are also in the lead for a Wild Card berth, in part due to their head-to-head tiebreakers over four other contenders.
Outside of the division, there are five other serious contenders for the Wild Card slots. Three of them (Dallas, Detroit, Green Bay) would need to win out just to get to 10-6, essentially giving Atlanta a one-game cushion. Seattle is the biggest threat to the Falcons, as they could also potentially knock the Rams into a Wild Card slot if they were to win out (the Falcons have no head-to-head tiebreaker over Los Angeles) and would finish 11-5 in that case. However, there will be quite a bit of “cannibalization” between these four teams. Dallas plays Seattle in Week 16, Green Bay plays Detroit in Week 17, and so on.
Here are the other remaining Wild Card contenders and their final three game schedules (a T- denotes that the Falcons possess a head-to-head tiebreaker over this team):
New Orleans Saints, 9-4—NYJ (5-8), ATL (8-5), @TB (4-9)
Los Angeles Rams, 9-4—@SEA (8-5), @TEN (8-5), SF (3-10)
Carolina Panthers, 9-4—GB (7-6), TB (4-9), @ATL (8-5)
T-Seattle Seahawks, 8-5—LAR (9-4), @DAL (7-6), ARI (6-7)
T-Dallas Cowboys, 7-6—@OAK (6-7), SEA (8-5), @PHI (11-2)
T-Detroit Lions, 7-6—CHI (4-9), @CIN (5-8), GB (7-6)
T-Green Bay Packers, 7-6—@CAR (9-4), MIN (10-3), @DET (7-6)
Let’s take a closer look at some of the potential playoff scenarios the Falcons could face, depending on the outcome of their last three games.
Scenario A: Falcons win out, finishing 11-5
This is obviously the most ideal situation, as Atlanta would not only finish the season with sweeps over the Bucs and hated Saints, but would also steal the division crown from New Orleans. Depending on how the rest of the NFC fares (namely, Minnesota would have to lose out), the Falcons could even be in play for a first-round bye. More than likely, however, the Falcons would finish as the #3 seed with a home playoff game in the Wild Card round.
Scenario B: Falcons go 2-1, with a loss in New Orleans, finishing 10-6
This is the second-best outcome for Atlanta, based on potential playoff scenarios and the remaining schedules for both Carolina and New Orleans. Outside of the game against the Falcons, the Saints essentially have a cupcake schedule. Carolina, on the other hand, has a game this week against a rejuvenated Packers team with a returning Aaron Rodgers. This scenario sets the Falcons up with the best chance to get in to one of the Wild Card berths due to tiebreakers, as Atlanta would have a divisional and conference record tiebreaker over the Panthers (4-2 to 3-3, and 9-3 to 7-5).
Scenario C: Falcons go 2-1, with a loss to Carolina, finishing 10-6
This outcome is actually worse for the Falcons, at least in my opinion, due to the fact that New Orleans is unlikely to lose either of their other two games. If Atlanta beats New Orleans but loses to Carolina, the Falcons may not actually reach the win total of either Carolina or New Orleans. This would leave the team is much the same situation they’re in right now: probably holding on to the 6th seed, but needing some other things (like Seattle losing at least one more game) to make it happen smoothly.
Scenario D: Falcons go 2-1, with a loss to Tampa Bay, finishing 10-6
This scenario is probably the least likely of the four to happen, but it’s worth examining all the same. If Atlanta stumbles in Tampa, it actually doesn’t knock them out of the running as long as they win their final two games. In fact, the wins over Carolina and New Orleans are arguably more important than the win over Tampa, due to the fact that they 1) give the Falcons the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints, and 2) eliminate the head-to-head tiebreaker of the Panthers. This outcome would still likely lead to the Falcons to a Wild Card berth, but they’ll require the same breaks that B and C would require.
Scenario F: Falcons go 1-2 (or worse), finishing 9-7 (or worse)
This scenario almost certainly leads to the Falcons missing the playoffs. With an abundance of competitive Wild Card teams, there is virtually zero chance of ALL of them falling to 9-7. However, the Falcons still have the head-to-head tiebreakers over four of those teams...so, in the event of craziness, Atlanta still has the leg up.
What are your thoughts on where the Falcons stand in the NFC South and the NFC playoff picture as whole after 14 weeks? Are you hopeful that the Falcons can win out, or do you expect them to finish with a Wild Card berth? Or do you just hate everything and expect them to miss the playoffs all together?