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The Falcons resurgence is a double-edged sword

After starting the season a putrid 1-7, the Falcons have dominated their two biggest division rivals in back-to-back weeks. Atlanta’s late-season resurgence is as entertaining as it is frustrating.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Heading into the bye, in Week 9, you would’ve been forgiven if you expected the ceiling of this Falcons team to be 3-13—or worse. Atlanta was playing miserable football and was in the midst of a 6-game losing streak. They had, at one point, gone over a month without a sack. The Falcons had only managed 4 turnovers on defense, and were giving up over 31 points per game on average. Sure, there were some competitive games mixed in—Arizona, Seattle—but also some absolutely embarrassing blowouts.

Going into Week 10—a road game against the hated Saints—many of us expected a blowout loss that would likely end the tenure of head coach Dan Quinn. The Saints, after all, were the NFC’s #2 seed and were on a 6-game winning streak. The Falcons didn’t appear to match up particularly well with anything New Orleans did on offense or defense.

The outcome of that game stunned the NFL—a dominant, 26-9 victory over the 7-1 Saints in their house. It was the first time in ages that a 1-7 team managed to defeat a 7-1 team, and it was the biggest upset of the 2019 NFL season according to point spread. The Falcons put together their first excellent performance of the season, playing stout defense and doing enough on offense to control the clock and keep New Orleans off balance.

After a victory like that, we all questioned whether or not that level of play was sustainable for this team. Turns out it was, at least for one more game. The Falcons went right back on the road and dominated another division rival, this time the 5-4 Panthers, to the tune of 29-3. Another strong defensive showing—capped by 4 INTs and 5 sacks—combined with a productive passing attack focused around Calvin Ridley to deliver another convincing win.

Just like that, the Falcons more than doubled their season win total. Now at 3-7 heading into a home matchup with the Buccaneers (3-7), Atlanta looks as dangerous as any team in the league.

It’s been fun as hell to watch this team run roughshod over the division and play exciting and entertaining football. We’ve missed it after watching them sleepwalk through the first half of the season. But this late-season resurgence is a double-edged sword, because it’s almost certainly going to be too little, too late for the Falcons.

Let’s get one thing straight: Dan Quinn and this roster of players were never going to attempt to tank for a draft pick. Quinn was always going to try to save his job in any way possible, and it seems like the players genuinely want him to stick around. For the Falcons to end up with the ultimate prize—Ohio State EDGE Chase Young—they likely would’ve needed to wind up with a top-3 pick. With Cincinnati looking like a 1-15 team at best and Washington not far behind, Atlanta probably would’ve needed to lose out to have a chance.

I’m more upset about the fact that even if Atlanta runs the table to close out the season—including a huge win over the potential #1 seed in the 49ers—they have very little chance of making the playoffs. They could continue on this absurd pace of allowing only 6 points per game and putting up scores in the high 20s and miss the playoffs. All because they had to go 1-7 before finding a way to fix things.

It’s also frustrating to see that the talent level on this team was clearly not the issue. The same exact players are out there, give or take a few minor substitutions. Instead, it seems it was Dan Quinn’s defensive play calling—particularly on third down—that tanked the whole unit. Raheem Morris has come in and changed what was the NFL’s worst third-down defense into one of the best almost overnight. That’s...a little bit infuriating.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to see this team finally play up to their potential. I just wish they didn’t have to wait until they were all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The NFC is incredibly strong this year: there are five teams with 8 wins at this point in the season. Atlanta needs New Orleans to lose 5 of their next 6, or one of the 8-win wild card contenders to lose out. The Falcons, as you might know, lost head-to-head tiebreakers against their top competition in the Vikings and Seahawks. Oh, and Atlanta also needs to win all of their remaining 6 games.

More than likely, however, the Falcons won’t win out. I’d expect a finish in the 7-9 range, with the team looking a lot more competitive over these final games than in the first half of the season. I’ll be happy to watch them look good, and it’ll produce a much more hopeful and enjoyable offseason. But it won’t change the fact that Atlanta may have squandered another year of Matt Ryan’s prime, and another golden opportunity to compete in the playoffs.

It’s depressing to think about, but ultimately a better outcome than continuing to play like the 1-7 dumpster fire we witnessed over the first half of the season. A strong finish could save Quinn’s job—and if the Falcons continue playing like this over the last 6 games, I think there could be a case for it.