Why the 4-5 Falcons are only half a team

The giddiness over winning three in a row was understandable. Winning three in a row beats the heck out of losing three in a row, which these Falcons had already endeavored to do. But two of those three victories came at home against teams that are a collective 4-13, and one thing you could say about Dan Quinn’s Brotherhood is that it hasn’t lately lost to a bad team. Now it has.

The Falcons went to Cleveland and yielded 427 yards to a club that had just fired its head coach and offensive coordinator. Granted, Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb were great collegians and are exciting rookies. That said, they’re rookies. The Browns had won two of their first nine games. The Falcons were favored by 5-1/2 points, which is a lot for a .500 team playing on the road. They lost by 12 after trailing by 18.

Today those three consecutive wins seem more a dead-cat bounce than the start of anything bigger and better. What was revealed Sunday wasn’t really a revelation, given that we’ve seen it all season, but never had it been presented in such screaming neon letters: The Falcons are half a team. When that half manages but 16 points, they have no chance.

We'll never know how good this defense might have been if its four best players hadn't been hurt in September. All we can know is that, even with Grady Jarrett healthy again, this defense is terrible. It ranks 30th in yards against, ahead of only Cleveland and Cincinnati, both of which beat the Falcons. (Note: The Bengals fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on Monday.) If you prefer a more advanced analytic, Football Outsiders' DVOA also rated the Falcons' defense the NFL's third-worst — and that was before Sunday's doings.

Last week the Falcons signed pass rusher Bruce Irvin. Maybe he'll help. He'd better do it soon. The Falcons had no sacks Sunday. They have 17 through 10 games, which ties them for 28th in the league. This might be a lesser concern if their cornerbacks could cover anybody, but they can't. Desmond Trufant, once a Pro Bowler, hasn't been the same since he was hurt at Tampa in November 2016; Robert Alford, who scored a touchdown in Super Bowl LI, has regressed from adequate to awful.

Linebacker Deion Jones, on injured reserve since the opening loss in Philadelphia, is eligible to return against Dallas on Sunday. That would be a boost, yes, but Deion Jones isn’t Deacon Jones. And there’s so much wrong with this defense — it couldn’t stop the run or the pass Sunday — that it appears beyond fixing.

The offense has — or had, until Sunday – been very good. Football Outsiders ranked it the league’s sixth-best. Still, that’s not the same as being best-in-the-NFL great, which it was in 2016 under Kyle Shanahan. Any off-day by this offense will yield a loss. (See Sunday’s no-show and the Thursday-nighter in Philly.) And we can’t say these Falcons have, apart from injuries, been ridiculously unlucky: They’ve played six games decided by one possession; they’ve won half. They’ve been outscored by 10 points on the season. At 4-5, they’re where they should be.

There's still a chance they could make the playoffs, but only as a wild card, and that chance is less than it was a week ago. FiveThirtyEight assesses the Falcons' playoff odds at 21 percent, which is not nothing. That said, 10 other NFC teams are given a better shot. The Falcons will face four of those, three on the road. FiveThirtyEight's simulations have them finishing with 7.6 wins, which would be a rounded-up 8-8.

That’s the other part about the set of games Sunday: This was always the schedule’s soft underbelly. After winning the most difficult of the four — in Washington, with the defense doing some real defending — this really needed to be four wins in succession. Instead the Falcons are back below .500, with the next four against Dallas, New Orleans, Baltimore and Green Bay. Even if they split those, they’ll have seven losses with a Dec. 23 date in Charlotte awaiting, and there’s no guarantee 9-7 will fetch a wild card.

Ah, well. When you start 1-4, you know everything thereafter must break right. Sunday saw the Falcons break bad again, leaving this team needing — being realistic here — to go 6-1 to have a chance of playing in the Super Bowl at home. That would surely be their only playoff game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and it seems unthinkable in the cold light of the failed trip to Cleveland. FiveThirtyEight assigns the Falcons’ chances of winning it all at less than one percent.

This wasn't the season anybody around here had in mind. (I had them going 11-5, and I'm not holding my breath.) The September injuries led to season-changing September home losses to the Saints and Bengals. Seven games remain, four on the road. To borrow from Bob Dylan: It's not dark yet … but it's getting there.