At 4-9, the Falcons have all but begun tryouts for the 2019 season. Ty Sambrallo played the entire game Sunday at Lambeau Field, supplanting longstanding right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Cornerback Robert Alford was benched early – he returned later, not to great effect – for rookie Isaiah Oliver. There was even a Brooks Reed sighting.
If the season ended today – practically speaking, the Falcons’ season ended a while ago – the local club would hold the No. 4 pick in April’s draft. (When’s the last time the Falcons exercised a higher choice? In 2008. They picked some guy from Boston College No. 3 overall.) Being realistic, that’s all they have going for them. But what, just for the sake of amusement, we stopped being realistic and got more than a little fanciful.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the Falcons’ chance of making the playoffs is less than one percent. That’s as low as it goes without hitting zero. Still, less than one percent is not quite zero. And if you spend 10 minutes fooling around with ESPN’s interactive Playoff Machine, you’ll find that -- lo and behold! -- there’s a way this 4-9 team could become the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
I know, I know. There’s still, at least in theory, the chance that I could rule the world. And I concede that this little exercise was the product of having too many hours to kill before flying home from Green Bay. That said, there remains an eye-of-the-needle path to postseason, and it goes like this:
1. The Falcons would have to beat the Cardinals, Panthers and Buccaneers.
2. Minnesota would have to lose to the Dolphins, Lions and Bears.
3. Green Bay would have to lose to the Bears and the Lions.
4. Philadelphia would have to lose to the Rams or Texans and then lose to the Redskins.
5. Carolina would have to lose to the Falcons and do no better than split with the Saints.
6. Detroit would have to lose to the Bills but beat the Vikings and Packers.
7. Washington would have to lose to the Titans and Jaguars but beat the Eagles.
8. The Giants would have to lose to the Titans, Colts or Cowboys.
9. Tampa Bay would have to lose to the Falcons.
Simple, right? Fifteen games would have to break the Falcons’ way. If all 15 do, they’d be the first 7-9 wild card, which says more about the state of the NFC than it does anything else. The conference has has split into two tiers: The Saints, Rams, Bears, Cowboys and Seahawks have at least eight wins and are essentially postseason locks. Nobody else is above .500.
Of the nine second-tier NFC teams that haven’t yet been eliminated, only two won over the weekend. The 5-8 Giants beat the 6-7 Redskins, who are down to their third-string quarterback, who happens to be Mark Sanchez; the 5-7-1 Packers, who just changed coaches, beat the Falcons. The Redskins have lost four in a row. The 6-7 Panthers have lost five in a row. So have the Falcons.
Please understand what I’m saying. This is NOT a prediction. All that needs to happen for the Falcons to be eliminated is for the 6-6-1 Vikings to win another game, and Minnesota gets the Dolphins at home Sunday. And I won’t even toss out the ol’ stranger-things-have-happened line because, in NFL annals, nothing this strange ever has.
As we speak, the Falcons are the 14th seed in their conference. To qualify for postseason, they’d have to jump eight spots in three weeks. Common sense tells us this could never happen. Common sense -- and advanced analytics -- also told us that, with seven seconds left Sunday, the Dolphins had a 0.1 percent chance of beating the Patriots. Just sayin’.