The Falcons ended their losing streak at three games Sunday with a victory over the Buccaneers. The Falcons (2-4) still are last in the NFC South, but do they have a realistic chance to make the playoffs?
It’s improbable, but not outlandish. Winning the division is a long shot but, after Sunday’s games, FiveThirtyEight.com’s statistical model gives the Falcons a 28 percent to make the playoffs. That’s the seventh-best chance among teams in the NFC, which will send six to the playoffs.
(The Football Outsiders playoff odds are much more skeptical of the Falcons’ chances. Before Sunday’s games, it gave them a 7.9 percent chance. Those odds won’t update until later in the week.)
If the Falcons can win, say, three of the next four to get to 5-5 then they figure to be in the thick of the NFC Wild Card race instead of on its edges. After this week’s games only two NFC teams, the Rams (6-0) and Saints (4-1), will have four or more wins. Don’t forget the Saints lost at home to the Bucs and would have lost at home to the Browns, pre-Baker Mayfield edition, if not for Cleveland’s wayward kicker.
The Falcons won’t have much of a chance to make a run if their defense doesn’t improve. It’s unrealistic to expect the defense to be good with two high-level starters on injured reserve (Deion Jones and Keanu Neal) and another (Ricardo Allen) who was key to communication. Those players helped a lot with two things the unit now struggles with most, covering and tackling.
But the Falcons will have a real shot if their defense can get to average, or close to it. The next four games offer them a chance to work through their defensive issues against middling offensive teams.
There isn’t a fearsome quarterback among the Giants, Washington, Browns and Cowboys. The Giants are the only average offensive team. Washington is below average offensively and the Browns are bad. The Cowboys will have to repeat Sunday’s performance against Jacksonville before I believe their offense is any good.
The Falcons were better defensively against the Bucs. As I wrote after the game, that sounds silly after the Falcons allowed 512 total yards and 8.1 yards per play. But I think the Falcons showed the defensive formula they can use to win games: make opponents work their way down the field in small chunks and get some takeaways.
The Bucs ran 63 plays and five were explosive (defined as rushes of 10-plus yards and passes of 20-plus yards). In the season opener, when the Falcons were healthy on defense, the Eagles had four explosive plays among 64 total plays. Tampa Bay is much better offensively than the Eagles, so I’ll take it as a sign of progress for the Falcons defense.
That bend-but-don’t-break blueprint only works if the Falcons keep scoring at a high level and either hold a lead or keep their deficits within a score. The plan worked in the first half against the Bucs, when the Falcons forced three straight punts and scored 14 points during that span. It nearly came apart in the third quarter, when the Falcons held the Bucs to three points on two possessions but punted three times in a row.
The offense is going to have to do the heavy lifting for the Falcons. That also should be possible over the next four games. None of the opponents are as bad as the Bucs defensively, but the Giants and Washington aren’t much better. The Browns have a very good defense but just allowed 38 points at home to the Chargers, who are a bit better than the Falcons offensively. Dallas is about average defensively.
The Falcons aren’t out of the NFC playoff race. The NFL system is designed to create a pack of indistinguishable teams looking to stay around .500 into December and then get a few good breaks. The Falcons already got some bad ones with injuries to their defense but, against the Bucs, they showed how they can win anyway.