Before the Week 15 NFL games had concluded, the Atlanta Falcons were virtually eliminated from playoff contention. Ten weeks earlier, they were 5-0 and riding high atop the NFL standings.
How did it all go so wrong?
Let’s go back, for a second, to Week 5. The Falcons had just completed yet another stunning victory – an overtime win against the Washington Redskins that was sealed by a pick-six from Robert Alford. At the time, we questioned the strength of those five wins, but we also saw the mediocre schedule the Falcons had ahead of them, and a playoff berth looked almost certain.
But then, something weird happened. The Falcons stopped defeating those teams they were supposed to beat, starting with a weird loss on a Thursday night in New Orleans. Then, a loss to Tampa Bay. Then, losses to San Francisco and Indianapolis.
(Also read: Firings coming for Falcons, reports say)
That’s when we learned far more about the 2015 Falcons than we did in the first five weeks of the season. They might have played well in Weeks 1 through 5, but they didn’t play that well. Several of those wins came at the end of furious comebacks in games they probably had no business winning.
What we’ve learned in the past 10 weeks is that even mediocre opponents adjust. Julio Jones was no longer unstoppable, and defenses were scheming against Devonta Freeman’s exciting runs. The adjustments made points harder to come by, and when the opponents started to figure out the Falcons’ offense, the losing train began careening out of control down the tracks.
Those train tracks were greased by Matt Ryan’s red-zone turnovers. He threw a league-high four red-zone interceptions, and despite being near the top of the NFL in nearly every passing statistic, questionable decisions took points off the board in seemingly every game. Matty Ice has never had fewer weapons, sure, but he did some really bad things at the worst possible times.
Truthfully, this team was never built for a postseason run, and a 5-0 start didn’t change that. They didn’t have depth, and the usual injuries exposed that as the season went on. So now, they’ll be watching the playoffs from home, even after a stellar start to the 2015 campaign.
There’s just one thing left to do: beat either the Carolina Panthers or New Orleans Saints to finish the season at .500 or better. Two losses would make the Falcons the first team in NFL history to start a season 5-0 and finish it with a losing record.
We don’t need that kind of history in Atlanta.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that the Falcons were officially eliminated from playoff contention. They are still technically alive in the playoff race.
Photo: AP/Phelan M. EbenhackFollow @Sean_Breslin