Falcons lose heartbreaking game - but not ground in NFC South

LANDOVER, Md. — Before the season, the Falcons making the playoffs seemed almost as far-fetched as Selena Gomez and I getting dinner. And yet, at 5-7 coming off a brutal defeat, we’re still here talking about it.

A lot of important stuff happens in our nation’s capital. A lot less important stuff happens about 11 miles east in Landover, where the NFL’s off-field circus holds permanent residence. But this Sunday was important in the NFC playoff picture.

The Falcons sought another win against a respectable conference opponent. They would’ve reached .500 and, as it turned out, taken over first place. It would’ve been two wins in a row as the team most expected to draft in the top five continued its unexpectedly competitive campaign.

Instead, with his team inside the 5-yard line with 1:03 remaining, Marcus Mariota saw his pass tipped by Daron Payne and intercepted in the end zone by a diving Kendall Fuller.

“You have to give credit to Washington,” coach Arthur Smith said. “They made a play at the end. We had a look we wanted, the guy tipped the ball up, and he caught it. Unfortunately, that’s the way it went. … “You can like (the look) all you want, they had a say and they made a play.”

When the Falcons could’ve gotten the ball back with about 30 seconds left, they ran into the punter to spare us the drama. (They likely wouldn’t have done much anyway. They had 131 yards in the second half, which included the 80-yard drive that ended with Fuller’s snag.)

Final: Washington 19, Atlanta 13. It had the feel of an afternoon we’ll look back on.

In the present, the game symbolized this Falcons’ season: close, but not quite good enough. The day symbolized the NFC South’s season: close, which is good enough.

Not long after the Falcons finished, the first-place Buccaneers lost to the Browns in overtime, dropping them to 5-6. If you’re waiting for the Buccaneers to turn it around, you’ll be waiting as long as I would be for that dinner. The Bucs are simply a mediocre team brought down by injuries and underwhelming coaching. They might win the division, but they won’t run away with it.

“I’ve been in this long enough, you don’t want others to control your destiny,” Mariota said. “You want to take care of business. Unfortunately, we left one out there today.”

Nonetheless, the NFC South remains winnable. The Falcons, who’ve had 10 of 12 games go down to the wire, are just a half-game behind the Bucs. This team with over $60 million in dead cap, a journeyman quarterback, cost-effective veterans and some youngsters could host a playoff game. That’s what’s possible with a division embracing the “C’s get degrees” mindset.

The Falcons are 5-7 with five games remaining. They’ll host Pittsburgh next week, enjoy a late bye and complete the season with road contests at New Orleans and Baltimore, then home games against Arizona and Tampa Bay.

They probably aren’t winning out. Even a 3-2 mark would only get them to 8-9. Alas …

“We’re still in it,” left tackle Jake Matthews said. “We’re not out of it, so we’re going to keep fighting.”

Sunday’s loss provided further clarity in one area: It seems the NFC South will, realistically, be the Falcons’ only path to the playoffs, because the wild-card contenders are distancing themselves.

The Cowboys (8-3) are the NFC’s top wild card, followed by the Giants (7-4), Commanders (7-5) and Seahawks (6-5). The Falcons own the tiebreaker over Seattle, but they already have three more losses than the Giants, plus two more than the Commanders and Seahawks. Washington’s victory Sunday also clinched a tiebreaker over the Falcons, should it come to it.

This is among the least inspiring division races you’ll see in any sport. It lacks excitement. It lacks interesting storylines. It’s four teams that don’t deserve to be anywhere close to the playoffs, forget hosting a playoff game. But we have these years sometimes. The NFC East, perhaps the NFL’s best division, had 7-9 Washington host a playoff game two years ago.

“It’s not over,” edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie said. “We still have a lot left to accomplish.”

The story Sunday could’ve been the Falcons drifting further out of the picture. This column space could’ve been devoted to more Desmond Ridder discussion (who, besides Smith, is tired of that?). But the Bucs’ loss once again keeps the Falcons afloat.

The next time the Falcons play, it’ll be December. That game will matter. The one after the bye will, too. Now just imagine a month later, this team hosting a playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Somehow, someway, that dream – if that’s how you’d classify it – isn’t such a stretch.