If the Falcons make the playoffs, could they stick around? Why, yes

It has been a wild year, and it’s not over yet.
It has been a wild year, and it’s not over yet.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

I’m on record – by now, it’s a broken record – as believing the Falcons haven’t played to capacity for longer than the odd half. (Usually it’s the first half. These are the Falcons.) What follows isn’t a reversal of that. What follows is a nod to reality.

With two games to go, the Falcons would have to lose out not to miss the playoffs. Football Outsiders rates their chances of qualification at 70.9 percent. If they win the next two games, they'll take the NFC South and have a Round 1 game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. If they split with New Orleans and Carolina, they'll play beyond New Year's Eve. (They're 3-0 against Detroit, Dallas and Seattle, the teams just below them. How big does that overturned Lions touchdown and 10-second runoff look today?)

Assuming Minnesota wins once more, the Vikings will have a bye. Philadelphia has one already. The 10-4 Rams currently hold the No. 3 seed on the strength of a victory over New Orleans and a better a conference record than Carolina. The Saints and Panthers likewise have 10 wins and are close to playoff locks.

Today’s question: If you’re the Falcons, does any potential Round 1 matchup scare you? Does any team on the NFC side of the bracket? Heck, does any team in the whole wide NFL?

We stipulate that this is not a prediction of impending triumph. If we go by Football Outsiders' latest DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) ratings, the Falcons would be the 10th-best team in the 12-team tournament. If Baltimore edges Tennessee or Buffalo, they'd be 11th-best. Apologies for belaboring a point long belabored, but this isn't a great team. That said, who is?

Philadelphia might have been, but it’s without Carson Wentz. Teams have won the Super Bowl with a pressed-into-service backup, but I’m not sure Nick Foles is Tom Brady. (Actually, I’m sure he’s not.) The Vikings started the season with Sam Bradford at quarterback because Teddy Bridgewater was still recovering from injury, but now Bradford is hurt – he often is – and they’re down to Case Keenum.

The Rams appear the NFC’s most complete team, but their up-from-oblivion story recalls last year’s Dallas rise. For Dak Prescott, read Jared Goff. For Ezekiel Elliott, read Todd Gurley. But those Cowboys were undone in the Divisional Round by the aforementioned Rodgers, which was why the second-seeded Falcons played the NFC championship in the since partially demolished Georgia Dome.

The Saints are better than they’ve been in a while – for a change, they’re defending – and are positioned to win the South. (They finish with the Falcons in New Orleans and the Buccaneers in Tampa.) But the Falcons did just beat them, did they not? The Panthers are essentially what they’ve been – a pitch-and-putt offense based around Cam Newton and a stout defense. The Falcons could have beaten them in Charlotte last month.

As we speak, the only NFC playoff repeater from last season stands to be the local club. The Packers and Giants have been eliminated. The Seahawks, Cowboys and Lions all need the Falcons to lose. I’m not sure Playoff Experience means much – the Falcons hadn’t been since 2012 and did rather well, albeit until their abrupt halt in NRG Stadium, last year – but there’s no team in this half of the bracket that’s anything approaching a perennial.

On the AFC half, there’s New England and Brady and Belichick. But the Patriots have (again per Football Outsiders) the league’s third-worst defense. Pittsburgh is the AFC’s best-rounded team, but the Steelers’ hairbreadth loss in Foxborough means they’ll probably have to beat the Pats in New England to reach the Super Bowl. The AFC’s third-best team is Jacksonville, which says it all.

The point being: There’s no team that appears unstoppable. This includes the Falcons. Football Outsiders rates their chances of being the No. 6 seed at 49.9 percent. The No. 6 seed must play every game on the road, and the home-field advantage is a mighty thing in January. (Especially outdoors, which the Falcons never were in last year’s postseason.) Still, a No. 6 seed has won the Super Bowl. The Steelers did it in February 2006. The Packers did it – you’ll recall them dismantling the top-seeded Falcons – in 2011. It can be done.

If you're asking, "Do you really see these Falcons in Super Bowl 52?", the answer is no. I just watched them come within a barely wide 54-yard field goal of overtime against a team looking for a place to lie down. Given all the near-misses by opponents at game's end – there have been five – the Falcons are fortunate to be 9-5. But the season starts anew if you can get to January, and they should. And they're reasonably healthy and hugely talented, and they just came as close as any team has ever come to winning a Super Bowl without being handed the trophy.

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