For the last team into the NFC side of the playoff grid, the Atlanta Falcons have a rather clear path to the Super Bowl. They can make it to Minneapolis without having to meet any team that qualified for postseason last year, although they might have to go through Minneapolis to reach Minneapolis.
They can reach Super Bowl 52 without having to face an Aaron Rodgers or even a Russell Wilson. They’ve already dispensed with Jared Goff, who just completed his second NFL season. This week’s opposing quarterback is Nick Foles, starting because Carson Wentz got hurt. If the Falcons win in Philadelphia on Saturday – they’re a road favorite over the No. 1 seed – and seeding holds in the other conference semi, their opponent in the NFC title game will be Case Keenum, who’s starting because Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater got hurt.
We can’t say the Falcons backed into anything. They had to beat Carolina, itself a playoff team, on the regular season’s final Sunday. They flew cross-country to face the Rams, who for much of the season appeared the NFC’s best team. The Falcons never trailed in the Los Angeles Coliseum. They looked like they’d been here before, which they have. They appeared the more talented team, which they invariably are. There’s thought now that these are the Real Falcons, primed to make us forget 28-3. (Not that anyone will ever forget 28-3.)
And here’s where I pause to say that I’m not yet a believer. Not yet and not quite.
Five of the Falcons’ past six games have come against playoff-level competition. They’ve won three of the five. That’s good. This isn’t: They’ve scored six touchdowns in those five games. They’ve kicked 16 field goals, which is stunning. Yes, it’s better to score three points than none. But can you reach the Super Bowl when your offensive star isn’t Matt Ryan but Matt Bryant?
The temptation is to say, “No, you can’t.” Then, after checking the remaining NFC teams: “Or maybe you can.” Foles threw four touchdown passes in his first start after Wentz was lost, but that was against the Giants, who were awful. The Eagles scored one offensive touchdown the next week against Oakland and were shut out in the regular-season finale against Dallas. (Foles worked one quarter against the Cowboys.)
The Falcons have averaged 22.3 points over their 17 games, down more than one-third from the 34 over their first 17 last season. Yes, the 2016 offense was a harmonic convergence. No, Steve Sarkisian was never going to be Kyle Shanahan. But nobody expected a unit that boasts the 2016 MVP, the NFL’s best receiver, its highest-paid running back and an All-Pro center to fall off this much. In eight games against playoff qualifiers, these Falcons have averaged 16.4 points. They’re 3-5 in those games.
There’s a counter-narrative emerging, sort of, that suggests the Falcons have become a defense-first operation. And they are, it must be said, better at defending than they were. Marquand Manuel seems an upgrade over Richard Smith, from whom Dan Quinn wrested the reins in December 2016. The first two players taken in all three drafts under Quinn were defenders. (Though Vic Beasley Jr. has regressed from being the NFL’s top sack man to just another guy.)
But, as Football Outsiders editor Aaron Schatz noted in a post for ESPN Insider, this defense still ranked 22nd among 32 teams in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average, Football Outsiders’ staple metric) over the regular season. The Falcons wanted to bring their defense to a level approaching their offense’s, which has happened. They didn’t necessarily want their offense and defense to meet in the middle.
That said: Metrics can’t fully account for the Eagles not having Wentz, which is a big deal. The odds of winning three road games to reach the Super Bowl are always long, but the Falcons are one-third of the way there and now face a team that doesn’t figure to score much. If they win Saturday, they’ll play either the Vikings, who scored 14 against the Falcons in winning here, or the Saints, who mustered 17 here and 23 there. Even with a demonstrably lesser offense, the Falcons would have a real chance against either.
See, I’ve contracted this case of cognitive dissonance. I really haven’t seen these Falcons as a Super Bowl team – not since October, anyway – but I don’t consider any team in their way anywhere close to invincible. If it’s the Saints in the Superdome for the NFC title … well, they were life-and-death to survive the Panthers. If it’s Minnesota with a Super Bowl on the line, be advised that nobody in the Twin Cities has forgotten the last time the Falcons and Vikings met in January. (It’s the Norse version of “28-3.”)
And what if the Falcons do beat Minnesota in Minneapolis to reach the Super Bowl, also in Minneapolis, and they find their opponent to be … Pittsburgh? What if the team with “28-3” etched into its championship rings falls victim to the latest installment of Patriot Intrigue – previous chapters: SpyGate, Aaron Hernandez, DeflateGate – and spits the bit? Wouldn’t that be a hoot?
I concede this is getting ahead of things. I still don’t know that these Falcons are a Super Bowl team, but I could see them getting there. Which would, by definition, make them a Super Bowl team.