The Falcons haven’t been able to breathe easy all season.
Nine of their 12 games have been decided by one score; five of those were decided by three points or fewer. They’ve had two opportunities to climb above .500 for the first time since 2017, and they’ve come up short both times.
Now, after a last-minute loss to the Commanders, the Falcons find themselves at 5-7 and with their season at a crossroads for what feels like the first real time.
Atlanta’s approach this year has not been complicated. Arthur Smith practically laid it out in the first press conference of the 2022 offseason back in March:
“This is a competitive league. Our charge as a coach, we’re going to go out there and compete and play better team football than we played last year and improve. … I feel good where we’re at, but our charge is not to be stuck in this limbo area. We are going to build this the right way, and we’re going to be competitive this year.”
The Falcons have the second-least-expensive active roster in the NFL, according to Spotrac, yet they are currently within striking distance of the division lead. With a playoff berth in sight, Atlanta’s focus has rightfully been on winning each Sunday. To the team’s credit, they’ve had a chance to do that more often than not.
As the losses have begun to outpace the wins, however, the calls for younger players like Desmond Ridder and Troy Andersen to take on more significant roles grow a bit louder. And, of course, there’s that batch of crusaders ready to throw in the towel each week in the name of a higher draft pick.
Until now, it’s been easy to ignore that chatter because the team’s strategy for staying afloat was so fascinating and effective. A loss on Sunday, though, makes that a conversation worth having.
FiveThirtyEight currently gives Atlanta a 17 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, and a 14 percent chance to win the division. A loss this weekend, coupled with a Buccaneers win, drops those numbers to 6 and 4 percent, respectively.
Last weekend the Falcons were slightly saved by Tampa Bay’s loss to Cleveland, but the NFC South is currently so murky that another defeat so soon could move the Saints and Panthers back into this race with a chance to leapfrog Atlanta.
Following Sunday’s game against the Steelers is the long-awaited bye week. If the Falcons drop yet another game and the division picture gets even murkier, perhaps that off-week changes the calculus a little bit.
With a week to adjust playing time and roles for players across the roster, the Falcons might have the appropriate time to get a real evaluation on some key pieces for the future over the final four games. The added time of the bye week would make this less of an on-the-fly transition and (hopefully) more of a calculated approach.
This would include giving Desmond Ridder a run at quarterback for the final four games. Even if he struggles in that stretch, the experience of starting an NFL game will not be foreign to him as the potential starter in Year 2. That’s worthwhile.
There is, of course, another option for the Falcons, and it’s the one I’m sure they prefer. They could win on Sunday. A victory this weekend keeps Atlanta in the mix, regardless of the Buccaneers’ outcome. The Falcons’ chances of reaching the postseason would improve to 23 percent if both teams win. If the Buccaneers lose, however, FiveThirtyEight boosts the Falcons’ chances to 33 percent.
This is a team that is built to scrap and claw and hang around. For that reason, I think we will see a very good version of the Falcons against the Steelers.
A healthy portion of this roster comprises veteran players on one-year contracts. They are out to prove something, and more importantly to make something of this opportunity. It’s not an easy thing to make the NFL playoffs, and some of these players may not get as close as this again.
If the Falcons can return home and secure a victory against the Steelers, they will go into the bye week with a chance to rest and reload for a potential stretch run. The final four games – New Orleans (away), Baltimore (away), Arizona (home) and Tampa Bay (home) – aren’t a cakewalk, but they are certainly winnable on a day Atlanta plays well.
Staying in contention has long-term benefits as well, despite any discussion of the future centering mostly around April draft picks and rookies. Like anything difficult, learning how to win late in the season takes practice. It takes experience and repetition. Teams strive to play their best football this time of year, and the good ones all have a reliable identity. It’s harder to win these games, especially with the pressure of the playoffs constantly present.
Better to get exposure to that pressure in a year with relatively low expectations than when the lights are a bit brighter.
For those who truly believe some of the draft picks are ready to take on bigger roles or that adjustments need to be made, I think those are coming win or lose. The bye week is an excellent time to look under the hood. Smith has stressed the importance of weekly self-scouting with today’s data resources, but this will still be a welcome chance to make some changes.
Whether those changes are for the beginnings of a pivot to the next chapter or a fine-tuning for a photo finish depends on Sunday.