Falcons have toughest path to the NFC playoffs 

The Falcons don’t like the Saints much.

The Saints don’t really care for the Falcons, either.

As they are set to meet for the first time this season at 8:25 p.m. Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, both teams 2017 fates are intertwined. 

If the Saints are going to revive their franchise after three straight 7-9 seasons, they’ll must beat the Falcons, the defending NFC championships.

If the Falcons are going to return to the playoffs, they essentially must beat the Saints twice in a span of 18 days as the playoff picture has started to clear up.

The Falcons are 7-5 and would not go to the playoffs if the regular season ended today.

The Falcons where pushed down to the seventh seed when the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 24-10 to improve to 8-4 Sunday night.

The Falcons are ahead of Detroit (6-6), Green Bay (6-6) and Dallas (6-6). The Falcons have the tiebreaker over all three of the 6-6 teams, with a head-to-head victory.

According to maketheplayoffs.com, the Falcons have an 11.67 percent chance of winning the NFC South division and a 44.92 percent chance of making the playoffs if they win their remaining games.

Can’t do that without beating the Saints, which makes Thursday game a proverbial “must-win” game.

“Everything that we want is still in front of us,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said.

The Falcons close out the regular season with games against the Saints (9-3) followed by a game at Tampa Bay (4-8) on Dec. 18, at New Orleans (9-3) on Dec. 24 and Carolina (8-4) on Dec. 31. 

“We still know that we are still alive,” cornerback Robert Alford said. “We just have to do our part and win games. It’s not over yet. We just have to own our division and just win out.”

The Falcons will need to play better against the Saints, who have won 9 of their last 10 games. 

“We have to learn from this (Minnesota) game,” Alford said. “We have to see what went wrong and correct those. We’ll watch film and study those guys. Hopefully, we can execute on Thursday.”

The Falcons aren’t really fond of this back-loaded all-NFC South schedule. They beat Tampa Bay 34-20 on Nov. 26 and came up short against the Panthers 20-17 on Nov. 5 and are 1-1 in the division. 

“We’ll get back to work, and I think we’ll be just fine on Thursday,” Ryan said. “We just have to get our mindset right.”

If the playoffs started today, Philadelphia and Minnesota would have the first-round byes in the NFC. The Panthers would be the sixth seed and play at the Los Angeles Rams. Seattle would be the fifth seed and play at the Saints.

New Orleans closes out with games against the Falcons (7-5), Jets (5-7), Falcons (7-5) and Bucs (4-8). 

Carolina (8-4) closes out with games against the Vikings (10-2), Packers (6-6), Bucs (4-8) and Falcons (7-5).

The Seahawks (8-4) are chasing the Rams (9-3) in the NFC West. They close with the Jaguars (8-4), Rams (9-3), Cowboys (6-6) and Cardinals (5-7).  

The Falcons (.625) have the toughest schedule between the Seahawks (.583), Panthers (.562) and Saints (.479) based the record of their opponents.

The Bears (3-10), the 49ers (2-10) and the New York Giants (2-10) have been eliminated form the NFC playoff race. 

Unlike Alford, some of the Falcons won’t allow themselves to look at the big picture.

“It’s just one at a time for us,” wide receiver Julio Jones said. “We’re not looking at the stretch. We have conference opponents and things like that, but really it’s just one-on-one right now, one game at a time. We aren’t looking ahead.”

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