The Atlanta Falcons beat the hell out of the Colts, and while many Falcons fans were ready to pack it in and start thinking about a new coaching staff and the offseason ahead, that means they’re still at least nominally in the playoff picture.
Do they have any real chance of getting there? How can they get there? Let’s tackle both questions, which are surprisingly straightforward.
Do the Falcons have a chance?
An extremely slim one, yes.
Right now, FOX Sports estimates Atlanta has a 14.3% chance of making the postseason, which is in line with the 10-15% range I’ve seen from other outlets. That’s not zero, but the reality is that the Falcons did massive damage to their chances of making it when they lost to the Panthers in particular, which put them behind the Saints and Buccaneers in the NFC South race and put them behind other opponents in the Wild Card race owing to record and tiebreakers alike.
Any push they make over the final three couple of weeks is likely to be too little, too late, in other words. They may be able to convince the team’s brass to hold on to Arthur Smith as head coach and finish with a winning record, but they need many things to break their way to make the postseason.
How can the Falcons make the playoffs?
Let’s start with the obvious: They have to win out. A loss to the Bears and/or Saints will put them at effectively a zero percent chance to make it, because there are just too many teams ahead of them and around them to survive any more losses.
Assuming they do win out, there is only one clear path to the NFC South title, and that involves the Buccaneers losing both of their remaining games. At 8-9, the same record the Saints will have if the Falcons beat them in Week 18, Tampa Bay would be a game behind the Falcons and would be vying for the Wild Card instead. That means we need to root for the Saints (ugh) in Week 17 and the Panthers (uh oh) in Week 18 if we do want the Falcons to take the division. It seems hard to believe that Tampa Bay could lose both those games, but it wasn’t all that long ago that they were playing pretty crummy football, so it’s possible.
To make the Wild Card, the Falcons have to swipe one of the final two spots. The Cowboys already have a playoff spot sealed up, which means the Rams, Vikings, Packers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, and Saints are fighting for those spots alongside Atlanta. To make that happen, the Falcons need:
In Week 17
- Ideally, the Bucs to lose so they still have a shot at the division; Tampa Bay dropping New Orleans may take them out of the picture;
- The Giants to beat the Rams, putting them back in the pack;
- The Steelers to beat the Seahawks, dropping them further out of the picture;
- The Packers beating the Vikings, given that Minnesota holds a tiebreaker on Atlanta thanks to their head-to-head victory.
That would leave the Falcons, Saints, Rams, and Buccaneers at 8-8 alongside the Packers and Seahawks, with the Vikings back at 7-9. Then we need:
In Week 18
- The Bears beating the Packers, dropping Green Bay to 8-9;
- The Cardinals beating the Seahawks, putting Seattla at 8-9;
- The 49ers beating the Rams, bringing them to 8-9;
- The Panthers beating the Buccaneers, dropping them to 8-9.
Out of that wreckage, with the Falcons winning against the Saints and moving to 9-8, they’ll be guaranteed to make the playoffs and likely the #6 seed. That’s the cleanest and best road forward, with some permutations where teams win in Week 17 instead of Week 18 instead. It likely won’t work out quite that well, setting up Atlanta with a better shot at the 7th seed than the 6th, but they badly need to be standing at 9-8 at the end of the season with only one other team holding the same record, lest tiebreakers come back to bite them given their NFC losses and less-than-stellar divisional record.
I’m not going to belabor this by tracing out every single scenario in which the Falcons can make it; suffice to say, they need other playoff hopefuls to lose and win themselves over the final two weeks. It’s unlikely that anything short of good fortune and a 9-8 record will get them into the postseason, so I’d say don’t get your hopes up and see how things shake out.