A month ago, some smart folks – Andy Benoit of MMQB, to name one; Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, to name another – were picking the Falcons and Steelers to meet at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3. (Both had the Falcons winning, FYI.) Those teams will convene Sunday at Heinz Field, with nobody suggesting this is a Super Bowl preview. The two are a collective 2-5-1.
ESPN’s NFL power rankings have the Steelers 15th among 32 NFL teams; the Falcons 17th. Football Outsiders ranks the Steelers 21st; the Falcons are 23rd. The site assigns Pittsburgh a 23.9 percent chance of making the playoffs; the Falcons are afforded a 17 percent chance.
Writes Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight: “This game could represent something of a last stand for both clubs. The Steelers, currently sitting at 29 percent playoff probability, could see their chances drop to a mere 16 percent if they lose. …The Falcons would fall to 23 percent with a loss — or, conversely, could build themselves back up to a respectable 46 percent playoff probability with a win.”
Since 1978, nine NFL teams have made the playoffs after starting 1-4. Both the Texans and Chiefs managed as much in 2015. (Kansas City actually was 1-5; its rise began with a victory over Pittsburgh.) But the Falcons are in a difficult division and face return matches at New Orleans and Carolina, plus a December game at Green Bay. And their defense, which figured to be very good, is depleted to the extent that it has become very bad.
Here’s Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders, who also picked the Falcons to win the Super Bowl, on the Falcons’ defense: “They don't have a single strength as a unit. Can't stop the run, can't rush the passer, can't bend-but-not-break. Without the upper-level talent that is all sitting on injured reserve right now, the defense is getting exposed on every level. That's how you become the first team to score 36 points in back-to-back losses since 1966. It's not just that the Falcons aren't good; it's that they've failed on every level at which a defense can fail through four games.”
It's conceivable that this defense will get better – it’d be nigh-impossible to get worse – especially if Deion Jones returns in November. And the law of averages would figure to rear its head soon. The Falcons have played four one-score games, losing three. They’re eight points from being undefeated. (They’re also eight points from being winless.)
According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), the offenses the Falcons faced the past three games rank sixth, third and fifth. The Steelers’ offense, minus the holdout Le’Veon Bell, is a mere 19th; the Falcons rank seventh. This shootout – we stipulate that shootouts can defy prediction – mightn’t be a match of offensive equals. The defenses are similarly lousy: The Steelers rank 30th in yards against, the Falcons 28th.
Having scored big on every opponent since opening night in Philadelphia, there’s no reason the Falcons shouldn’t hang another 35-or-so points on another flimsy defense. By way of contrast, the Steelers have topped 27 once in four games. Bell won’t be playing, and Antonio Brown – some consider him superior to Julio Jones – ranks 35th in receiving yards. Jones, ahem, ranks first. Matt Ryan is fifth in passer rating; Ben Roethlisberger is 23rd.
Sunday’s game would have been hyped to the heavens had these teams approached their preseason billing. Instead we get the Falcons, who just went 1-2 on a three-game homestand, against the Steelers, who are 0-2 at their place. These clubs haven’t fallen completely off the grid, but they’re staring upward at 19 teams who’ve already banked two or more wins.
Dan Quinn, who coaches the Falcons, said after losing to Cincinnati: “We’re a good team, and our record does not show it.” But how good should we expect a team missing so many key players – Grady Jarrett, the Falcons’ best defensive lineman, won’t play Sunday – to be? Is it reasonable to believe this lessened team can do as it was expected to do with all hands on deck?
Writes Paine: “Just as Atlanta’s offense has returned to greatness, its defense has deteriorated completely, giving away all of the gains made by an offensive attack that looks genuinely scary again. The end result could be another wasted Falcons season – and Ryan might not have many more of those left before his prime ends.”
Let’s not sweat long-range implications. In the cold light of the here and now, the dream of winning a Super Bowl at home is all but gone. Just claiming a wild card would seem an achievement, and the chance of that could hinge on one Sunday in Pittsburgh. It’s not an elimination game – on Oct. 7, there’s no such thing – but it is a day of desperation.