It's guaranteed that the NFC South champion won't have a winning record and -- with the Falcons and New Orleans tied at 5-8 with only three games to go -- even .500 is the long shot on the board.
That's key when determining the futures of Falcons coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff because nobody expects owner Arthur Blank to keep his football operations staff intact after consecutive losing seasons.
Unless . . .
Let me preface this by saying I believe the decision to fire Smith has been made -- I'm less certain about Dimitroff -- and something would have to happen to change Blank's mind. Something like: a long playoff run. In other words, I don't believe if the Falcons go 7-9, win the South, make the playoffs and lose in the first round that Blank will stick with the status quo.
He knows he can't sell that to the public -- and by sell, I mean in terms of perception, tickets and PSLs.
But what if the Falcons win a playoff game? Or two? What would it take for Blank to maintain confidence in Smith and/or Dimitroff?
First, let's look at the three principles in the NFC South "race":
-- Falcons (5-8): Games remaining: home vs. Pittsburgh (8-5), at New Orleans (5-8), home vs. Carolina (4-8-1). They've played better in the second half of the season but the defense still can't get a pass rush and the health of Julio Jones (hip) and William Moore (ankle) is in question this week. They played a strong second half in Green Bay but to project that out and assume success in the final three games is dangerous, to say the least.
-- Saints (5-8): Games remaining: at Chicago (5-8), home vs. Falcons (5-8), at Tampa Bay (2-11): New Orleans has lost four straight home games and appear to be in full meltdown mode. Expect defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to be looking for a job after the season, and suddenly there are rumors that coach Sean Payton also may be in trouble. Payton is trying to shake things up. He met with 10 players for individual meetings, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, is benching starting safety Kenny Vaccaro this week and waived wide receiver Joe Morgan. But I won't write off a team with Drew Brees at quarterback.
-- Panthers (4-8-1): Games remaining: home vs. Tampa (2-11), home vs. Cleveland (7-6), at Falcons (5-8). Until Cam Newton's scary car accident Tuesday, which left him hospitalized with two transverse process fractures in his lower back, I actually thought Carolina might be the surprise South winner. The Panthers have a favorable schedule and they looked good in last week's 41-10 win in New Orleans. Hey, it could still happen. But probably not.
That's where things stand. Here's the poll question: What should it take for Smith to save his job? I've listed several possible answers.
Sound off below and vote in the poll.