Atlanta’s headed into into the final nine games, having gone 3-4 in their first seven. They probably can afford to lose two more the rest of the way and have a shot at a playoff spot, but that’s it, meaning they’ll need to go 7-2 the rest of the way to stand a real chance.
The obvious question is whether they can do it, but that’s a tough one to answer until we see how they look against opponents like Washington and Cleveland, who are at least capable of being greater threats than the Giants and Buccaneers. Here’s a look at who’s left, and please note that team rankings came before the conclusion of Saints-Vikings Sunday night.
Week 9: @ Washington Redskins (5-2)
Points For/Against: 146/134
Washington has been one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses thus far in 2018, but they also have one of the league’s worst offenses. The net result has been a lot of close, ugly wins, and they’re sort of the opposite of the Falcons in that regard. The reason Washington has been able to win is as throwback as it comes—Adrian Peterson gnawing on the clock like a dog on a ticking bone, and a defensive front that can and does routinely make life hell for opposing quarterbacks.
Washington’s biggest weakness is their inability to make up ground if they fall behind, as Alex Smith has pulled into his shell even further and the weaponry is lacking. The team has been able to make up for it by playing solid-to-strong defense and forcing plenty of turnovers, with four interceptions and five recovered fumbles out of ten forced. They’re not nearly as good as their record suggests, but they’re the strongest opponent the Falcons have faced in a couple of weeks and the defense could be legitimately problematic for an offensive line that has shown itself to be incapable of holding up against strong attacks.
Week 10: @ Cleveland Browns (2-4-1)
Points For/Against: 126/121
The Browns finally got Hue Jackson fired, and that’s probably not a good thing for the Atlanta Falcons, who could have benefitted from the sloppiness his teams usually bring to the table.
Cleveland is loaded with quality talent, and their turnover differential is stellar despite their lousy results. There are holes across the roster—wide receiver is a huge weakness, the offensive line is still patchy, and the secondary remains a work in progress—but they really are not far away from being a good football team. The Falcons have to travel to face them, and this is not the mortal lock to be a win it might’ve been a year or two years ago.
This team has a potent ground attack keyed by rookie Nick Chubb and the always dangerous Duke Johnson, the kind of quick receiving back who bedevils Atlanta, and Baker Mayfield is very good for a rookie quarterback who has been sacked 20 times in five games. Defensively, this team can be downright brutal to face off against, with Myles Garrett emerging as a terror off the edge, strong interior line play, and an opportunistic group with 12 interceptions on the season. Nothing about that defense is going to be easy for Matt Ryan and company on the road, but at least Cleveland’s offense is still just dysfunctional enough to think Atlanta can capitalize on it.
Again, though, this is not going to be an easy matchup for the Falcons. Two road games against quality defenses will test this offense, and the Browns could very well be an improved team immediately minus Jackson at the helm.
Week 11: Dallas Cowboys (3-4)
Points For/Against: 140/123
Unfortunately, the Falcons did not get the Cowboys while they were one of the most laughably bad teams in the NFL. Fortunately, they’re still going to be an easier test at home than either of the other teams on this list.
Dallas added Amari Cooper to help bolster a lousy receiving corps also dragged down by shaky tight end play, but Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott have still been carrying the load. Elliott is the kind of dangerous back the Falcons will likely gameplan around, but when Prescott’s on he’s an accurate passer and a pain in the ass on the ground given his scrambling ability. You’ll never confuse this with the best offense in the NFL—it’s more in line with Washington’s—but there’s at least the potential for Dallas to attack some of Atlanta’s weaknesses if they lean heavily on their stars.
The Dallas defense has the second-lowest number of points allowed in the NFL as of Monday evening, but they’re not a stellar group. The pass rush is a problem and is yet another potential headache for Atlanta’s largely shaky offensive line, but they rarely get turnovers as a group and the second is eminently attackable for an Atlanta Falcons passing game with weapons to spare. I’m not overly concerned with Atlanta’s ability to score points against them at the moment.
This is, by virtue of being a home game, probably the easiest game in the next three weeks for Atlanta, and they could have Deion Jones back to make an impact, too. Let’s hope it stays looking good.
Week 12: @ New Orleans Saints (6-1)
Points For/Against: 234/183
This is a vintage good Saints team with an unstoppable offense, opportunistic defense that flirts with disaster on a weekly basis, and a healthy dose of luck. The Saints aren’t 6-1 if Justin Tucker doesn’t miss an extra point and the Vikings don’t self-immolate in their own stadium, but they remain one of the NFL’s best teams. God, it hurt to type that.
Start with the offense. Brees is unfortunately not slowing down at the pace we’d like him to, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram are a fine duo on the ground, and the receiving corps is loaded with options. The Saints can be stymied—the Ravens and Vikings have shown us that—but it requires a ton of pressure on Brees and a ton of discipline across the board. The Falcons aren’t really that kind of defense right now, meaning this one is likely to get ugly again.
Defensively, the Saints don’t look nearly as crisp as last year, with newcomer Eli Apple and much-heralded Marshon Lattimore struggling to avoid penalties and getting burnt deep. The Saints make up for it with a relentless pass rush from their front four, including promising (if expensive) rookie Marcus Davenport, and the willingness to be aggressive and shoot for game-changing turnovers even if things go awry in between. Given how good the offense is, that’s been more than enough, but obviously Atlanta can handle everything but the pass rush with aplomb.
The chief thing the Falcons have going for them is familiarity with this Saints defense and the long-standing ability to attack it, allowing them to get into the kind of shootout that could hinge on one or two Drew Brees turnovers. If Deion Jones is back and healthy, that helps a great deal, but obviously this is one of the toughest matchups left on the docket for Atlanta.
Week 13: Baltimore Ravens (4-4)
Points For/Against: 197/137
The Ravens are a fascinating team right now. They started the year 3-1 behind a stifling defense and a suddenly game Joe Flacco, but they’ve gone 1-3 since then, including a crushing one point loss to the Saints and an ugly deep-sixing at the hands of the Carolina Panthers where arguably the weakest offense in the NFC South managed to put up 36 points. They’re trending in the wrong direction.
That’s a shame because it had been fascinating to see a team that played stellar defense thrive in the year 2018. The Ravens have absolutely teed off on opposing offensive lines this season, piling up 27 sacks and generally limiting offenses to slow, grindy drives. They’ve failed to piled up a lot of turnovers, however, and have exploitable pieces in the back end of the secondary that the Saints, Bengals and Panthers have taken advantage of this year. Atlanta’s roadmap for beating them begins and ends with going nuts through the air.
Offensively, the Ravens have been good enough to get by, with Joe Flacco getting off to a hot start and cooling off into a more Flacco-like version of himself in recent weeks. He still throws a solid deep ball, but this offense is not studded with playmakers, and the ground game is not at all effective on a per-snap basis. They’ll do enough against this limited Atlanta offense to be a problem, but they’re not really going to win on the back of the offense alone unless they make the switch to Lamar Jackson and he proves to be ready for the challenge.
This looked like the single toughest matchup on the docket less than a month ago, but if Baltimore stays struggling, perhaps Atlanta can sneak in a win at home.
Week 14: @ Green Bay Packers (3-3-1)
Points For/Against: 175/173
I don’t know if Green Bay is a good football team. On one hand, they have Aaron Rodgers and just took an undefeated Rams team almost to the brink. On the other hand, they’re a middle-of-the-road defense and offense minus Rodgers, and the Falcons have been on a nice little run against them of late.
Green Bay has played a lot of close games this year, and those are games where Rodgers gives them a legitimate shot at winning. He’s fumbled five times this season, but he’s thrown just one pick and remains one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the game of football. Young running back Aaron Jones has been the team’s most effective player on the ground by a wide margin, but he has just 44 carries on the year. Davante Adams remains the team’s one true, useful receiver, though they at least have some young promising options. The pieces are there for this to be an above average offense, but they’ve settled in somewhere near the middle thanks to holes in their talent base and the ongoing coaching woes of Mike McCarthy.
Defensively, they’ve allowed at least 28 points in five of their seven games in 2018, and generally wear down dramatically as the games wears on. This is the weakest pass rush, just in terms of talent, that the Falcons are going to face off against the rest of the way, and the secondary is rebuilt but not turnover-happy. It’s a middle-of-the-road unit, too.
Green Bay is a solid football team with a legendary QB and home field advantage, but this one feels really winnable from where I’m standing now.
Week 15: Arizona Cardinals (2-6)
Points For/Against: 110/199
There’s no way around it: The Cardinals are the worst team left on Atlanta’s slate, and it’s by a wide margin. The Cardinals have hope for the future with a handful of young, promising defenders, a potential franchise quarterback in Josh Rosen, and quality weapons like David Johnson and Christian Kirk. They are, however, a bad football team.
On offense, they’re bad because they simply don’t have enough talent overall. There are holes in the receiving corps, at tight end, and along the offensive line, though they’ve at least gotten rid of Mike McCoy. Rosen looks promising but is also a rookie who has a penchant for throwing balls he maybe shouldn’t, which further caps the upside of an offense that needs a lot more David Johnson to get going.
The defense isn’t awful by any stretch of the imagination, but there are too many holes to consider it a top-shelf squad, and they’re probably a couple of drafts away from getting there. There’s promise in the desert, but I think at the moment you could argue convincingly that only the Bills, Raiders, and Jimmy G-less 49ers are worse than Arizona.
Rosen should continue to get better and the Cardinals might grind out a few wins, but if this Falcons team is even close to as strong as they have been over the last couple of weeks, they should win this one at home walking away.
Week 16: @ Carolina Panthers
Points For/Against: 178/152
The Panthers are a team I always have trouble believing in. Their ability to do great things is rarely in question—they were 15-1 three seasons ago and have at least been decent since—but in practice they tend to land with a whump at exactly the wrong moment.
That may be changing, though, and the Panthers are quietly getting scarier as the weeks wear on. They’ve outlasted the Eagles, thumped the Ravens in the single most impressive effort of their season thus far, and generally played plenty well enough to be 5-2.
Offensively, Cam Newton and company are finding a rhythm. Their nominal #1 receiver is Devin Funchess and rookie D.J. Moore has been kind of disappointing, but Newton’s throwing well and continues to be a battering ram on the ground. He’s well on his way to his best season since his 2015 MVP year, Christian McCaffrey has been much better in his second campaign, and a patchwork offensive line has held up better than it has any right to.
Defensively, the Panthers are rough. They don’t have as many sacks as you’d expect give their talent up front, but they have been opportunistic en route to nine interceptions and have one of the best groups of defensive tackles in the entire NFL, allowing them to hold opposing ground games in check most of the year. They’re a balanced, effective football team.
The Falcons edged them out earlier this year and can do so again, but the road is a less hospitable place. We’ll have to hope they start to slip before these two teams meet again, or it’ll be another rough NFC South battle.
Week 17: @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4)
Points For/Against: 201/233
This final game could mark either Atlanta’s triumphant launch into the postseason or an opportunity to beat up on an opponent they’ve played some very crushing games against in the last few seasons. Either way, I’m hoping it’ll be a fun time.
We’re just biding the time until the Bucs start over again. Chances are good that Dirk Koetter is out, GM Jason Licht should definitely be out, and Jameis Winston may be shipped out in the offseason to start another teardown. The Bucs continue to have the talent to make some noise in the NFC South but are miles away from consistently doing so.
The entire regime provides a cautionary tale. In a division with a lot of continuity—Ron Rivera’s been around for a while in Carolina, even if the reins have changed in the front office, and the Sean Payton/Mickey Loomis pairing seems eternal—the Bucs invested in a risk with the first overall pick, made huge unforced draft errors like trading up for kicker Roberto Aguayo, and more. The talent they have locked into place isn’t enough to overcome that, and the Bucs will now hope they can bridge the gap between Winston and whoever comes next without losing too much talent.
The Falcons should win this one, even on the road. I hope.
What kind of record do you see for this remaining schedule?