No matter how bad the Falcons have been this season, they haven’t been terrible enough to drop out of the NFC South race.
It’s not the most inspiring rallying cry.
“It’s not really something I go in thinking about before the game: ‘Oh, we can lose this one,’” Falcons guard Justin Blalock joked.
And yet the Falcons (2-6) were able to lose five games in a row and still be within two games of the Saints (4-4) in the NFC South.
The Falcons keep losing, but so does everyone else in the division. The Falcons can make the playoffs if they can finish as the top team in the NFL’s worst division.
“It’s disappointing, but at the same time you can’t go in the tank, you can’t let your teammates go in the tank and you can’t let no one around you go in the tank,” Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas said. “Once again, we are not out of anything yet. All we have to do is handle our business and control our own destiny and it starts coming back with Tampa Bay (on Sunday).”
No team has ever rallied from a 2-6 record to make the playoffs since the field expanded to 12 teams in 1990. Then again, this is the first time with a sub-.500 record has led the division as late as NFL Week 8.
The Falcons are 2-0 in the division with victories over the Saints and Buccaneers (1-6). Winning the remaining four division games would get them to six victories, and one or two victories outside the South could be enough for them to sneak into the playoffs after an awful start.
Falcons coach Mike Smith usually is reluctant to focus on anything but the next game. But in the days before the Lions game, Smith tried to motivate his team by noting that as bad as things had gone they were still in the division race.
After the Falcons lost to the Lions, Smith was back to taking the micro view.
“We’re just trying to get a streak and get one,” Smith said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. We all are aware of what’s going on in our division. It’s a race that has not been taken over by any one team. We still have an opportunity.
“But we can’t worry about that race. We have to worry about getting a win. That’s something that hasn’t happened in a while for people in this building and for our fans.”
In theory, the Falcons can rally and win the NFC South, but the reality is they’ve shown little indication they can do it. The first half against the Lions was their only sustained stretch of winning football in five weeks, and it fizzled in familiar fashion.
In the second half the offense misfired amid penalties, issues in pass protection and dropped passes. The defense gave up a long passing touchdown and eventually collapsed under the weight of trying to hold the lead when the offense couldn’t add points.
The Falcons are 6-18 since the beginning of last season after posting a 56-24 record in the first five seasons under Smith. Losing has become the norm for the Falcons, but Smith said the Falcons still believe they can get back to winning.
“This team has stuck together,” he said. “You’ve got to have confidence every time you go out on the field that you are going to win the football game. I think that our men in that locker room have that; the coaches have that confidence.”
Two major statistical models are optimistic about the Falcons’ chances of turning their season around.
Football Outsiders complies its playoff odds by running 50,000 simulations based on the performance of teams relative to the league average and adjusted for schedule strength. That formula gives the Falcons a 10 percent chance of winning the division, down from 20 percent before the Lions game.
The statistical website FiveThirtyEight.com calculates playoff odds based on an Elo rating that takes into account wins, margin of victory, home-field advantage and historical data. That system pegs the Falcons’ chances of winning the division at 4 percent, down from 6 percent before the Lions game.
Both formulas give the Falcons virtually no chance of earning a wild card. There are 13 NFC teams with more victories than the Falcons.
The Falcons’ best chance, even if it’s a small one, is to finish with the best record in the South or win a tiebreaker. If two or more teams finish with identical records in the division, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head record, and the second is division record.
“Right now we have got to do what we have got to do,” Douglas said. “We can’t focus on what everybody else is doing. We have division games left. We’ve got to start with one win first, and then build off that.”
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