Three games ago, I wrote that the Atlanta Falcons’ league-toughest schedule was about to provide another test. Despite the fact that they had already played some of the NFL’s best teams, the Falcons were about to face three of the league’s best defenses, and we wouldn’t have to wait any longer to find out just how good the Atlanta offense really is.
In those three games, the Falcons went 1-2, falling to 7-5 and a tie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for first place in the NFC South. They managed to hang 38 points on the Arizona Cardinals, a team that boasted the NFL’s best passing defense, but in the two losses, the Falcons averaged just over 21 points a game. Even worse, they might have lost their two best wide receivers and starting left tackle Jake Matthews in the process.
Now, the Falcons face a different challenge than anything they’ve seen all year. In the final four games of the season, they won’t face a single opponent with a winning record, and their next two opponents – the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers – have a combined record of 5-19.
In short, there’s absolutely no excuse, not even injuries, to lose either of the next two games.
This is uncharted territory for the 2016 Falcons, but one would have to look no further than the 2015 squad to see an example of how this team handled teams they should beat. After starting 5-0 last season, the Falcons sputtered to an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs, and they did it by losing to bad teams. To avoid a repeat of last season’s meltdown, the Falcons need to get their offense rolling quickly and put these bad teams away early.
In the final four weeks, the Bucs get the New Orleans Saints twice, and the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys once each. Atlanta should assume, since they have the tiebreaker over Tampa Bay, that it’ll take a 3-1 record down the stretch to win the division. The Falcons also get Carolina and New Orleans in the final two weeks of the season, and it would be a shame to falter against those sub-.500 opponents and lose the division as a result.
The Falcons are still well within striking distance of a No. 3 or even a No. 2 seed in the playoffs, but if they can win the South, they’re guaranteed to host a playoff game against a beatable opponent like the New York Giants or Detroit Lions, even if they can’t earn a first-round bye.
But that’s all fantasy talk if the Falcons can’t find a way to beat the lousy opponents they have left on their schedule, and as history has shown, this might not be an easy task.Follow @Sean_Breslin