Falcons appear destined to make NFL history

Falcons coach Dan Quinn looks on from the sidelines as his team falls behind 20-3 to the Vikings in a football game on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Falcons coach Dan Quinn looks on from the sidelines as his team falls behind 20-3 to the Vikings in a football game on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

This is a historic season for the Falcons, who are celebrating their 50th anniversary.

There have been a few highs, but mostly lows over those five decades of play at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and the Georgia Dome. In a sordid kind of way, given the history of the franchise, which didn’t record its first back-to-back winning seasons until 2008 and 2009, the 2015 team is paying its own historical tribute.

Under first-year coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons are on a path that could end up providing the most historic collapse over the past 45 years since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The Falcons (6-7) play at Jacksonville (5-8) at 1 p.m. Sunday at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.

The Falcons close the season by hosting Carolina on Dec. 27 and New Orleans on Jan. 3. If they can’t win two of their final three games, the Falcons will become the first team to start a season 5-0 and end it with a losing record. Since the merger, 66 of 72 teams that started the season 5-0 went to the playoffs.

Of the six teams who did not make the playoffs, all finished with at least a .500 record.

Former NFL executive Bill Polian, who was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, had a few interesting observations about the Falcons.

Polian was the color analyst for ESPN radio’s broadcast of the Falcons’ 38-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

Polian, while commenting on SiriusXM’s NFL Radio later in the week, said he thought the Falcons played hard, but were in disarray. He didn’t like all of the fights, penalties, blown coverages and turnovers.

“This is a team that is crumbling right before our very eyes,” Polian said of the Falcons, who have lost six consecutive games after winning their first five games and six of their first seven.

Despite the train appearing to be off the tracks in Flowery Branch, Quinn does not sense a lack of team unity.

“I do not,” Quinn said. “I can’t wait to get back out there with the team. I couldn’t say that any more clearly.”

The Falcons know they have probably blown a shot at going to the playoffs, although they have not been mathematically eliminated.

“In these situations, you can’t fold,” linebacker O’Brien Schofield said. “You have to show still how tough you are. You have to be ready to fight, week in and week out.”

While the offense has continued to struggle and the defense started to show some cracks against Carolina, Quinn’s challenge has been to rally the team to close the season strong.

“More so than anything, this is when you show who you are,” Schofield said. “If you’re not with us, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. I think as a teammate, you want to see the guys that are going to fight when it’s tough.

“Not just the guys who are around when everything is going well. This is the identity of this football team, we win and we lose together. We are only going to turn it around together. There is no one person who can do it by themselves. I think from a team standpoint, we are very focused and understand the task at hand and how we need to finish this thing off.”

During the 2009 season, two teams started hot before falling apart and missing the playoffs.

The Denver Broncos, under rookie coach Josh McDaniels, started 6-0, but finished 8-8.

Ironically, like the Falcons, it was Denver’s 50th anniversary season. It was their first season without coach Mike Shananhan, who guided them to two Super Bowl titles.

After the Broncos started 3-9 the following season, McDaniels was fired.

The New York Giants, who were led by veteran coach Tom Coughlin, opened the 2009 season 5-0, but finished 8-8.

After the hot start, the Giants lost four consecutive games. They stopped their losing streak by beating the Falcons 34-31 in overtime Nov. 22.

Coughlin rebounded by posting three consecutive winning seasons, including finishing 9-7 in 2011 and winning his second Super Bowl title. Coughlin is still the Giants’ head coach.

The 1974 Patriots, coached by Chuck Fairbanks and led by quarterback Jim Plunkett, were the first team since the merger to start 5-0 and miss the playoffs.

The Patriots lost their sixth game and won their seventh before losing three in a row. The Patriots won another before closing with a three-game losing streak to finish 7-7.

The 1978 Redskins, under first-year coach Jack Pardee, started the season 6-0. They made it to 8-3, before losing their final five games. Joe Theisman and Billy Kilmer were the quarterbacks. This was the first season of the 16-game schedule.

Pardee coached two more seasons, going 10-6 and 6-10 before the Redskins hired Joe Gibbs and he went on to win three Super Bowl titles over 12 seasons.

The 1993 Saints, under Jim Mora started off 5-0 going into their bye week. They weren’t the same team after the time off and dropped two straight, one to Pittsburgh and to the Falcons before fading down the stretch to an 8-8 record.

It was a sign that Mora’s magic had worn off after posting four double-digit win seasons with the Saints. He had losing records in 1994 and 1995 before resigning in 1996. He resurfaced in Indianapolis in 1998.

The 2003 Vikings were led by coach Mike Tice, who served as the Falcons’ offensive line coach last season.

Their leaky defense cost them after a 6-0 start. The Vikings lost four consecutive and finished 9-7.

With quarterback Daunte Culpepper and wide receiver Randy Moss, who had 1,632 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns, the Vikings led the league with 6,294 yards of offense, but scored only 416 points, which ranked sixth in the league.

They were eliminated from the playoffs when Arizona receiver Nate Poole caught a touchdown pass on fourth-and-25 to give the Cardinals a 18-17 win in the final game of the regular season.

Tice coached two more seasons with the Vikings, finishing 8-8 and 9-7.

The Falcons can avoid history by beating Jacksonville, a three-point favorite, and either Carolina or New Orleans.