With only three games remaining, the Falcons could either end up with the No. 4 seed in the NFC or holding a top-three draft pick. That’s a crazy amount of outcome volatility this late in the season, and it’s fitting given that this year has largely been about grappling with the past, present and future all at once.
There are certainly some enticing player or matchup storylines that I could dive into for this week’s big question, but I thought it might be an appropriate time to lay out a few draft scenarios for the final few weeks.
Now, I’m not an advocate for intentionally losing games to get a better draft spot. For starters, this sport is too dangerous, too cut-throat and filled with people who are too competitive for that to likely ever be a serious strategy. Secondly, I’m not entirely sure a high draft pick guarantees you much of anything most years.
The Falcons aren’t going to try to lose games, and nobody should ask them to. So my approach is purely to lay out some scenarios to illustrate the wide array of outcomes and maybe help you get a better sense of it all.
To do this I used ESPN’s NFL Playoff Machine to assign teams wins and losses in each matchup for the final three weeks. I went through all four possible records the Falcons could have in this three-game stretch and then manipulated results to determine the best and worst draft pick Atlanta could have based on the outcomes of other games.
I’ll be honest, it’s not a purely exact science. The strength of schedule stuff is very tricky and way too time-consuming to figure out for the season’s end. Since strength of schedule is the key draft order tiebreaker, though, I did factor in the current SOS and remaining SOS for each team, according to Tankathon, to provide an imperfect system. You can also check out DraftKings Sportsbook’s odds for the draft here.
If I’m off a spot come April, send your complaints to Dave (Editor’s Note: Do not send Dave your complaints). Let’s go!
Falcons Finish 3-0 (8-9 overall)
Highest possible draft spot: 9th
Should the Falcons win out, the best they could hope for is the ninth spot in the draft. That’s still a top-10 pick, but it would also require Atlanta to miss the playoffs. At that point, some fans would undoubtedly wonder what purpose those three wins served if it cost the team an even higher pick and they still didn’t reach the postseason. I’d argue that’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario, where you still get a quality draft slot and your young team ends the year on a high note.
For this scenario, it would be Carolina or Tampa Bay claiming the division. Based on the remaining matchups, two NFC South teams would finish with a worse record than Atlanta and have a higher pick. The six teams currently ahead of the Falcons in the draft order would have no chance to finish with a better record if Atlanta wins out. But the two division teams that move up would bump the Falcons back to 9th from where they currently sit at No. 7.
Of course, this also assumes that the teams with a record currently matching or just slightly better than the Falcons’ continue performing. For instance, Cleveland and Pittsburgh would each need to finish 2-1. That would give them an identical record to Atlanta, but the Falcons would have the higher pick due to strength of schedule.
Lowest possible draft spot: 32nd
This possibility is technically not off the table, although it is extremely unlikely. Since there is still a path to the playoffs for the Falcons, there is also the chance they win the Super Bowl and have the final pick.
That’s not as much fun, since the likelihood it happens is so small. But what would happen if the Falcons win out and the favorite wins in every other matchup? Should that scenario play out, Atlanta would land the 14th pick in the draft. This highlights the importance for the other middle-of-the-pack teams to continue winning alongside the Falcons.
Falcons finish 2-1 (7-10)
Highest possible draft spot: 5th
For the Falcons to land as high as 5th in this scenario, they need to beat Baltimore on Saturday and Tampa Bay in Week 18. This would also require the Cardinals to win out and the Buccaneers to lose out, which would land them at 7-10 and 6-11 respectively. Atlanta would finish 7-10 with two wins in the final three games, but it would be ahead of Arizona in the pecking order due to an easier schedule.
Because Tampa Bay’s (.404) and Carolina’s (.440) final strength of schedule at this point would be lower than Atlanta’s (.449), they would hold a higher spot in the case of a four-way tie. That’s still in play if the Panthers, Saints and Falcons all finish 2-1 and the Bucs finish 1-2. However, either Tampa Bay or Carolina would win the division in the two instances I’ve laid out, which would still put Atlanta 5th in the draft.
There are several teams that could throw a wrench into this if they stumble down the stretch. In addition to the Cardinals, the Falcons need the Colts, Jaguars and Broncos to win out. A 2-1 finish is also required by a few other teams to make this happen. It’s a stretch to get to 5th, but it’s possible.
Lowest possible draft spot: 32nd
Yep, even with another loss it’s still possible for the Falcons to win the NFC South and reach the postseason. Carolina would need to split its remaining games against the Buccaneers and Saints, beating Tampa Bay in Week 17 and losing to New Orleans in Week 18. The Buccaneers would need to lose this weekend to set up that possibility, and neither the Saints nor Panthers can win more than one game.
Falcons finish 1-2 (6-11)
Highest possible draft spot: 2nd
There’s a realistic shot that the Falcons can land as high as 2nd in April’s NFL Draft. With anything more than one loss down the stretch, they would only need help from a couple of teams. Crucially, the Bears would need to finish the season cleanly with wins against Buffalo, Detroit, and Minnesota. On paper, that seems like a very tall task, but stranger things have happened.
Chicago has a very high strength of schedule, so Atlanta would jump the Bears if they both finish with a 6-11 record. The Rams and Broncos would also each need to win at least two games, which is made trickier by their matchup against one another this weekend. The Colts are another big team to watch in this scenario, but their tie would help the Falcons if they can get to six wins.
Lowest possible draft spot: 9th
The 9th spot seems to be a popular one for Atlanta. Landing near the bottom of the Top 10 in this case would require the teams currently ahead of the Falcons in the draft order to continue to lose more than they win. Two key teams in this particular equation are Carolina and Jacksonville. The Jaguars would need to lose all of their remaining games, and they would have the lower schedule strength in the tiebreaker thus jumping Atlanta.
The situation involving Carolina is similar, although they could win a game and still finish ahead of Atlanta if the SOS falls correctly. One of the primary scenario paths sees Tampa Bay rolling to a division win, but the Falcons could also end up in the 9th spot if the Bucs lose out. If the dominoes unfolded that way, it would help the Cardinals reach 6-11, and they’d move from ahead of the Falcons to behind them. So, although Tampa slides up, Arizona slides back.
Falcons finish 0-3 (5-12)
Highest possible draft spot: 2nd
Unfortunately, even if the Falcons lose out, they have no shot at acquiring the top-overall pick. With only one win this year, Houston is guaranteed to finish with a worse record than Atlanta. However, this finish would give the team a greater chance at landing the 2nd or 3rd picks in April, which would still be enough to net them a top quarterback – if they go in that direction – the top player at nearly any position they choose or a bounty of picks for a team looking to trade up.
If there’s not another win on the horizon, only four teams could end up ahead of Atlanta in the draft order. The Colts, Broncos, Rams and Cardinals all currently have four wins – so an 0-3 finish would keep them higher than the Falcons. However, since Atlanta has a lower projected strength of schedule than any of those teams, a single win would mean the Falcons leapfrog the victorious squad.
Lowest possible draft spot: 7th
This is perhaps the most straightforward option. If the Falcons lose out, they shouldn’t drop any lower than they are right now. The Rams and Broncos play each other this weekend, and they both should finish with a better strength of schedule so one team will likely drop behind Atlanta. As I’ve noted above, though, if Carolina finishes with an identical record, it should jump the Falcons in the pecking order.
Let’s have one more fun scenario, though, and say the Falcons lose out and defenses around the league get red-hot as the temperatures plummet. What would it look like if the team with the better defense won every other matchup?
In this universe, the Falcons would be sitting pretty with the 2nd pick. Chicago would win two of its remaining matchups, and Arizona would have the win in Atlanta. This would put all teams at 5-12 with the Falcons winning the tiebreak and settling in at No. 2.
That last scenario is probably a better bellwether for what could happen than the extreme highs and lows that I manipulated to unfold. If the Falcons do continue to struggle down the stretch, a Top-5 pick could certainly be in the cards.