Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Falcons close to clinching NFC South, suddenly have shot at bye

At a time when the Hawks are sinking, the Braves are building for the seemingly distant future and Georgia's and Georgia Tech's football teams are preparing for after-thought bowl games, the Falcons have suddenly emerged as contenders in the NFL.

Welcome to the top of the Atlanta sports food chain.

It doesn't take much to get caught up in hyperbole after something as simple as a two-game winning streak over two of the NFL's worst teams (Los Angeles, San Francisco). But this is December, when haves and have-nots of the NFL separate themselves, and after Sunday's 41-13 destruction of the 49ers -- you can read my column on the game, linked here -- this is where the Falcons find themselves.

• The win over the 49ers left the Falcons at 9-5, ensuring their first winning record since 2012. (Former coach Mike Smith followed a 13-3 season and a loss in the NFC title game with 4-12 and 6-10 seasons, getting fired,  and Dan Quinn went 8-8 in his first year after a second-half collapse.) With games remaining at Carolina (5-8) and home against New Orleans (6-8), the Falcons have a chance to finish 11-5.

• Tampa Bay's loss to Dallas Monday night dropped the Buccaneers to 8-6, moving the Falcons close to clinching the NFC South. They have a one-game lead and own common-opponents and conference-record tiebreakers over Tampa Bay. They teams are tied in division record. The Bucs finish with games at New Orleans and home against Carolina.

• The Falcons now have a 91 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 77 percent chance of winning the division, according to the computations of FiveThirtyEight. But it goes beyond that. Finishing as a No. 3 or 4 seed in the NFC would give the Falcons a home playoff game, and they're currently third (by virtue of common opponents tiebreaker against Detroit).

• Wait, there's more. they're only one-half game behind Seattle (9-4-1) for the No. 2 seed behind Dallas (12-2). The second seed would give the Falcons a first-round bye. FiveThirtyEight gives the Falcons only a 13 percent chance of getting a bye. That's because while the Falcons play two beatable divisional opponents, Seattle does the same: home against Arizona (5-8-1-) this week, at San Francisco (1-13) in the finale.

Still, for a Falcons team that played its worst game of the season before the bye at Philadelphia, losing 24-15, they're sitting in a nice position. As I wrote in the column, they would own a four-game winning streak since the bye if not the implausible "pick-two" after a touchdown against Kansas City.

Quinn wanted his players to have enthusiasm for the moment of the playoff stretch and they're doing that.

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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.