Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was asked to reflect on this bizarre 2019 season.
He spoke of it being a “tale of two halves” that included some horrific play during a 1-7 start that was punctuated by a 357-play sack drought over six games.
Since changing some coaches’ duties and simplifying the defensive scheme, the Falcons have posted a 5-2 mark against a softer schedule, and they have a 3-3 record against NFC teams that likely are headed to the playoffs.
The Falcons’ surge over the second half of the season has dropped their draft position, and if they can beat the Buccaneers (7-8) they could finish in second place in the NFC South and earn a slightly tougher schedule for 2020.
But Ryan sees the benefits of the surge far out-weighing some of the unintended consequences of winning after the season essentially is over and you’ve been eliminated from the playoffs.
“The biggest thing is, especially with a young football team, is that it creates belief,” Ryan said. “Knowing that you can go into these tough places against really good teams and get the job done.”
Despite their record, the Falcons have three signature wins.
They defeated the Eagles, who could lock up the NFC East title Sunday, at home in Week 2 for their only win in the first half of the season.
After the bye week, they defeated the NFC South-champion Saints 26-9 on the road Nov. 10 and they defeated the San Francisco 49ers, who could lock up the NFC West title Sunday, 29-22 on the road Dec. 15.
“I think that belief is very powerful,” Ryan said. “Having the mindset that you know you are capable of getting the job done is big. I think that more so than anything, that is what carries over.”
Those three wins will be used as motivation in the offseason.
“There is a belief that we can beat a good football team moving forward and we have enough pieces and the right people to be able to do that,” Ryan said.
The Bucs started the season 2-6, but also are 5-2 over the past seven games.
“For us not being able to go to the playoffs -- not where we want to be for sure -- to play a team that is equally kind of hot as we are right now, them probably having the same sort of success out of the bye, it’s going to be a great opportunity to show how far that we’ve come,” said linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, who’s calling the defense and first and second downs.
Ricardo Allen, who was moved from free safety to strong safety with Keanu Neal out, also sees the benefits of the second-half surge.
“It’s beneficial for everybody in this building,” Allen said. “It’s a good way to finish out the year.”
Allen still can’t block out the 1-7 start.
“This year wasn’t a perfect year,” Allen said. “But the way we came back from the bye, we tried to say that we wanted to start a new season.”
The players bought in to the moves, and the coaches tried to eliminate any instructions that had the players hesitating and blowing coverages.
“We wanted to start it over and keep going,” Allen said. “We wanted to keep it in that mindset, keep it in that realm and try to keep going. We wanted to build on that and use it as positivity no matter what is going to happen in the offseason. Just to use it as positivity and keep going.”
The Falcons’ 2020 schedule is set except for two games. If they finish in second place, they will play either Seattle or San Francisco from the NFC West. If they finish in third place, they would face the Rams. In the NFC East, a second-place finish could mean the Eagles or the Cowboys instead of the New York Giants.
“I don’t worry about all of those other things as much as just trying to get the job done this week,” Ryan said. “We know we are playing a good team, a team that is playing really well.”
The Falcons see a lot of the Bucs when they look in the mirror.
“Their (Tampa Bay) second half of this season has been very similar to ours,” Ryan said. “They have been operating at a very high rate the second half of the season and that is what we are focused on.”
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