The Atlanta Falcons, despite their 5-9 record, remain very much alive in the air-tight NFC South playoff race. Two weeks ago, it looked as if the division was going to come down to the Falcons and the Saints in the final weeks. Now, the Carolina Panthers have taken advantage of sloppy football all around and entered the conversation with a 5-8-1 record. Judging from the craziness that we’ve seen from this division this year, these next two weeks will be fun.
The Falcons had an opportunity on Sunday to retain their first-place spot in the division with a much-needed home game against the Steelers. Julio Jones was ruled out the morning of the game with a hip injury he sustained in his record-setting performance against the Packers. However, that didn’t affect the tone in the locker room, as this was a game that Falcons’ players and coaching staff fully expected to win despite the difference in records. The Atlanta Falcons defense was once again nothing short of miserable, giving up large chunks of yards on what seemed like every play.
The game started slow for Atlanta, a team who frequently gets hot in the first quarter. After the first quarter ended with Pittsburgh up 6-0, Matt Ryan began the second quarter with an interception that was brought to the house by William Gay to put Mike Tomlin’s squad up 13-0. Ryan would rebound after that mishap, leading an 85 yard drive and finding Devin Hester for a 17-yard score. At halftime, the Steelers led 20-7 thanks to an end of the half touchdown by Le’Veon Bell.
The Falcons knew their offense had to turn it on if they were to have a chance at winning the game. Matt Ryan was able to engineer two good possessions, but simply couldn’t finish as they both ended in field goals. The Falcons defense was uncharacteristically stout in the third quarter, holding the Steelers to no points to still give Atlanta an opportunity to steal one. In the fourth, the Falcons defense learned the hard way that you can’t keep Le’Veon Bell out of the end zone for long, as the running back bruised it in from 13 yards out to make the score 27-13. That pretty much iced the game for the Falcons, as one more touchdown to Roddy White wasn’t enough to complete the comeback. Matt Ryan finished the game 26/37 for 310 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. Harry Douglas, who filled in for Julio, had a career game with 10 catches for 131 yards.
With that loss, the Falcons moved out of first place and into third place behind Carolina. As it stands right now, the Saints (6-8) are in first, the Panthers (5-8-1) are in second, the Falcons (5-9) are in third and Tampa Bay (2-12) is dead last. The Panthers and Saints each took advantage of Atlanta’s loss, beating the Buccaneers and Bears respectively, and set the last two weeks up to be exciting football for the NFC South.
For the Falcons, they truly control their own destiny. Their next two games are against the very two teams who stand in front of them for a playoff spot. Next week, in what will be each squad’s game of the year, the Falcons head to New Orleans for a Louisiana showdown against their bitter rival Saints. In week one of the season, we saw what we normally see when these two teams meet: A high-scoring offensive shootout. With both defenses struggling, I don’t have any reason to believe we won’t see more of the same. The Falcons nabbed that game in Atlanta, winning 34-31 in overtime.
Now, let’s talk what-if
Should Atlanta win this contest, it would really shake things up and stack all the cards on week 17. The Falcons would improve to 6-9, the same record the New Orleans would fall to. The Falcons would be ahead of the Saints in that case because Atlanta would have swept the season series. If the Panthers came out victorious against the Browns this week, they would be in first by only a few percentage points with a 6-8-1 record. Given those circumstances, the week 17 matchup between Carolina and Atlanta in the Georgia Dome would all but decide the division. If the Falcons beat the Panthers on that day, then they would automatically clinch a spot in the playoffs even if New Orleans wins their final game against Tampa Bay, as that would give a tiebreaker to the Dirty Birds. On the contrary, if Carolina was to win that week 17 game, then New Orleans could slide in the playoff spot with a 7-9 record.
There are so many different ways that this race could turn, especially given the extremely inconsistent play of all three teams. Let’s put it in a nutshell. If Atlanta is going to make the playoffs, they have to win out against the Saints and Panthers. The same goes for Carolina, as they must beat Cleveland then Atlanta. The Saints are the only team that could perhaps afford to lose a game and still make the playoffs, but that would still severely hurt their chances. Just some food for thought: Atlanta is coming up in its final two division games of the year. Through their first four, they are 4-0.
But for right now, Mike Smith has his team focused solely on New Orleans. Playing in that stadium is never easy, especially when they have something to play for. Falcons fans know that despite the heavy favoritism that all “experts” throw the Saints way when these teams match up, the Falcons frequently play their best against “Who Dat?” nation
The Falcons vs. Saints rivalry is the oldest and most established rivalry in the NFC South, and there is nothing but hate between these two teams. As usual, there has already been some trash talking going on leading up to the game. During a press interview, Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis talked about containing Matt Ryan. In the conversation, Lewis tells the media, “We’re definitely gonna give them their funeral.” Atlanta Falcons all-time leading receiver Roddy White was asked whether or not the comment bothered him. “Nope,” said white. “May we rest in peace until Sunday.” That’s just more fuel being added to the fire, and we’ll see if the Falcons can come out and do their talking on the field.