Here we ask: Is Dan Quinn a miracle worker for turning a 1-7 team into something bright and shiny, or is he the prince of dunces for needing half a season to figure out which coach should do what? (Is it possible to be both?) We’ve gone from wondering how in the world DQ hadn’t been fired to asking, “Can these guys run the table?”
When linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich — he’s also the defensive play-caller on first and second downs, though not on third; with the Falcons, it’s complicated — suggested last week that this team was “setting up an opportunity to create a story people are going to want to read,” an eye-roll was the appropriate response. After Carolina, fewer eyes are rolling. Mathematically, the Falcons can finish 9-7. There has been a 9-7 wild card qualifier in five of the past seven seasons.
The Falcons have scant chance of winning the NFC South. New Orleans leads them by five games with six remaining. FiveThirtyEight still sets their playoff chances at less than 1 percent, meaning a lot of people would have to do a lot of losing for 9-7 to work. Five NFC teams have won eight games. Two more have won six. There are six playoff berths per conference. We're three Falcons wins from having a serious conversation, but the next three games are at home. If they can get to 6-7, their odds won't be less than 1 percent any longer.
We pause to consider what these fingers just typed: “If they can get to 6-7 ...” Just doing that would require a team that lost seven in a row to win five without reversal. That would have sounded nuts two weeks back; it still sounds wildly optimistic. Good teams don’t get to be 1-7, and bad teams don’t go 5-0. Thing is, the Falcons don’t seem bad anymore. Oh, and two of those home games will be against opponents that were just routed; the third is against Tampa Bay.
Local precedent: In Year 1 under Dan Reeves, the 1997 Falcons started 1-7; they finished 7-9, and that was with losing their final game in Phoenix. They weren’t eliminated from playoff consideration until the penultimate weekend, and then only when Detroit’s Herman Moore caught a touchdown pass against Minnesota with three seconds left. For a franchise that had had two winning seasons and five head coaches since 1982, that team was a happy surprise. As these fingers typed back then: “When was the last time you hungered to see more, as opposed to a whole lot less, of the Falcons?”
As of noon on Nov. 9, we’d seen too much of these Falcons. All that remained was to learn how high they’d pick come April and what new coach/general manager would make the choice. Nine days later, we’re all going, “Wait a minute,” and waiting is the only prudent course. Nobody saw 1-7 coming. Nobody saw this, either.