There's still a way for the Atlanta Falcons not to make the playoffs. (I don't see it happening, but it's possible.) If we go on margin of victory -- an old-school metric, but still a useful one -- they're the NFL's second-best team. They've outscored opponents by 111 points, or 7.9 per game. Only New England (132 points, 9.4 per game) is better.
The Falcons can't clinch the NFC South just by winning in Charlotte on Christmas Eve. New Orleans would have to beat Tampa Bay that day for it to be official. But, after losing to Dallas on Sunday night, the Buccaneers have fallen not just a game behind the Falcons but also behind Washington in the chase for the NFC's second wild card. (At 10-4, the Giants have a lock on the first.) Tampa Bay can still make the playoffs, but it needs both the Redskins and the Packers to lose.
The Falcons need only to beat the Panthers and the Saints, neither of whom are above .500, both of whom the Falcons have already beaten. Win twice and they're in as division champs. But the key game remaining for the local franchise will be played in Seattle on Saturday: Seahawks versus Cardinals.
With Sunday's 41-13 victory over San Francisco, the Falcons climbed above Detroit, which lost to the Giants. The Falcons now hold the NFC's No. 3 seed and the perks that would entail -- a Round 1 game at home against the No. 6 seed, which could be Washington or one of the Bays. (Though getting Aaron Rodgers in the Dome would recall grim memories of January 2011.) The bigger perk would be to jump Seattle for the second seed, which would mean no Round 1 game and no trip to CenturyLink Field for Round 2.
Honesty compels me to note that I don't think the Cardinals, who are 2-5-1 since Oct. 17, can win in Seattle. I'm all but certain the Seahawks won't lose to San Francisco on New Year's Day. (I just saw the 49ers play.) The no-call against Richard Sherman on Oct. 16 stands as the biggest play of the Falcons' season. Had he been flagged for pass interference and Matt Bryant then delivered the winning field goal, the Falcons would be 10-4 to Seattle's 8-5-1. What the College Football Playoff folks say also resonates in the professional ranks: Every week counts.
Further reading: There could be a trophy in the Falcons' future.
Still further: Fessin' up: I was wrong about Kyle Shanahan.