November 26, 2017 Atlanta: Falcons head coach Dan Quinn gives running back Tevin Coleman a hug after his first of two touchdown runs against the Buccaneers during the second half on the way to a 34-20 victory in a NFL football game on Sunday, November 26, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Falcons are surging at right time of season

After posting a third consecutive victory, the Falcons are solidly back in the mix for the NFC South division title and a playoff berth. They are 7-4 and trail the Saints (8-3) and Panthers (8-3) by one game with five to play. The Falcons have two games left with the Saints and one with the Panthers.

The Falcons next play the rugged Vikings (9-2) at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

Getting home-field advantage throughout the playoffs will be a challenge as the Eagles, of the NFC East, have raced out to an 10-1 record. 

The Falcons were 7-4 at this point last season before they made their run to the division and conference titles and the Super Bowl. They are gaining national support after a slow start. The Falcons defeated the Buccaneers, 34-20, on Sunday.

“I thought it was a good sign for the Carolina Panthers (on Sunday) to score that many points without Cam Newton really having a good day, but I like the Atlanta Falcons in this division,” said Tony Dungy during the Sunday Night game on NBC. “I just like where they are. The energy and the way this offense is playing now. This is what we expected all year.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn received the endorsement well.

“The guy is in the Hall of Fame for a reason,” Quinn quipped before locking back into his one-game-at-a-time mode. 

Even the acerbic Rodney Harrison is giving the Falcons a “maybe” nod. 

“But the division is so close,” Harrison said. “I think it comes down to which team is the healthiest. For the Saints, the injuries are starting to pile up. Carolina, they use Cam Newton too much in the run game and they can’t run the ball consistently. If I had to pick a team, maybe the Falcons.”

After going 4-4 over the first eight games of the season, which included uninspiring losses to Buffalo, Miami and New England, the Falcons have started to roll offensively. They averaged 31.6 points over the last three wins.

The Falcons are pointing to their improvement on third down as the key to the resurgence. They are converting on 48.1 percent of the crucial down, which ranks first in the league.

However, the defense, which failed to protect a 27-6 and let Tampa Bay ease back into the game, must continue to improve down the stretch.

Of the NFC South teams, the Falcons have the toughest road to the playoffs. Their final five opponents are a combined 37-18 (.627 winning percentage). The Panthers’ opponents are 33-22 (.600). The Saints’ opponents are 30-25 (.545).

Last season, the Falcons had a relatively easy path to the playoffs over the final five games when they faced the Chiefs, 49ers, Rams, Panthers and Saints. The Falcons dropped a 29-28 heartbreaker to the Chiefs and then ripped off four straight wins to finish 11-5. The Falcons averaged 36.4 points over the final five games of the 2016 season. 

Even with the tough schedule, the Falcons believe they can go on a similar roll.

“By no means do we feel like this team is peaked in any way,” Quinn said. “But I would say that our identity, how we want to play, our style and our attitude in a lot of examples, is coming through.”

Quinn was elated with the special teams play against the Bucs for an added element of the game.

“It was good to see us play penalty-free on special teams,” he said and joked about the team throwing a pool party to celebrate.

Quinn knows the Vikings will present a stiff challenge to keep the upward trend.

“We are just going to fight like hell for the game that we’re in,” Quinn said. “Things that are way down the line, things like getting back to this or doing that. ... The way we play at our best is when we lock in on this game, this week, this moment, this opportunity.

“Past that, that’s good to talk about at the end of the year. For the most part for us, it’s like how do we get better. ... We are always kind of chasing what we can do better.”

After facing Minnesota, the Falcons play New Orleans on Thursday, Dec. 7 before traveling to Tampa Bay on Dec. 18 and to New Orleans on Dec. 24 before closing the season at home against Carolina on Dec. 31, in what could be a winner-take-all battle royale. 

The Panthers beat the Falcons, 20-17, on Nov. 7 in Charlotte. 

If the playoff started today, the Eagles and Vikings would have first-round byes. The Falcons would open on the road as the sixth seed against the third-seeded Rams. The fourth-seeded Saints would host the fifth-seeded Panthers. 

But Quinn won’t even take a peek past the Minnesota game.

“We are pumped to be here at home this week, but past that, we don’t really go down that road,” Quinn said. “We are pumped to have this (opportunity), this weekend. It will be a straight battle.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn discusses the win over the Bucs and the state of the 7-4 team. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter

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