CHARLOTTE – By virtue of a 29-21 victory over Carolina Sunday, the Falcons are, at least for another week, “in the hunt.” That’s a polite little phrase for a team now 6-7 on the season, one step above “bless their hearts,” and maybe two full notches over “you’ll like her, she’s got a great personality.”

This was a meeting of two teams of basically similar humble rank, with the loser destined to fall out of the hunt for the postseason and into the pit of pointlessness and draft-pick speculation.

“This was a playoff game for us, that’s what we’re preaching,” said linebacker Mykal Walker, whose 66-yard interception return in the second quarter gave the Falcons a lead they refused to relinquish. Because that’s how teams in the hunt approach December.

The Falcons are riven with flaws, or else they wouldn’t still be on the shady side of .500 13 games into the campaign. Those have been thoroughly vetted in ugly losses to quality teams like Dallas, New England and Tampa Bay. And yet, here they are, in the hunt. And for that, some credit must be paid the new administration of Arthur Smith, who has not allowed his guys to give in to the worst of their performances.

“In the hunt” is a fairly vague phrase that in the Falcons’ case mixes sunny optimism with a hint of incredulity. If this Falcons team is in the playoff hunt, then surely Vin Diesel is in the hunt for an Oscar, and I remain in the hunt for abs of steel. But never doubt that where there’s hope, there’s life.

For another week at least, they keep their place in that far right-hand column of every TV infographic outlining the NFL playoff possibilities, space reserved for all those spunky sorts with at least some kind of mathematical chance. The next step would be to move into the “contenders” column – oh, what a glorious promotion that would be.

Teams in the hunt are able to rinse out their dirty laundry week to week, and not let the funk fester. These same Panthers earlier this year manhandled the Falcons, rushing for 203 yards and beating them down, 19-13.

Credit the Falcons with a big reset on Sunday. “Guys made a commitment to shut the run down. We were very physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage,” Smith said. Carolina’s rushing was cleaved in half and then some, the Panthers running for 91 yards this day.

Conversely, a Falcons running game thought nonexistent when this season’s fun began has now gone over 100 yards for three straight weeks. It’s not like they’re running roughshod – they had 128 rushing yards Sunday – but they are doing enough to give Smith the gift on unpredictability in play-calling.

“If you want to win in December, you got to bring your run game,” Smith said. And, apparently, it is a part of the Falcons plan to win at this late juncture.

You ask, how have they revived the run? “Besides Art cussing us out?” said back Mike Davis, whose humor held the truth that Smith doesn’t seem to be one to let his guys get pushed around without letting them hear about it.

As for other factors, Davis, who gained 44 yards on 11 carries on his first return to his former employer said, “Our offensive line has taken on the challenge, they want to prove to everybody we can run the ball.”

“(The offensive line’s) confidence is building, I thought they created some good gaps for our runners,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “And our runners ran hard. They finished really, really well in the run game. In order for us to be successful that’s how we’re going to have to do it going forward.”

The same line that gave up five sacks to Tampa Bay a week ago yielded none to a defense that is the best part of the Panthers.

Teams in the hunt are also opportunists. Sunday the Falcons defense had two interceptions and a fumble recovery, producing a 3-1 turnover margin that’s kind of vital in an 8-point win (and that skinny margin still was the Falcons most lopsided victory of their six this year).

There were flashback moments when the Panthers Cam Newton reminded the Falcons of horrors past, of when their defense was capable of making Newton feel better than a new feather and felt fedora. Like when he ran through one tackle and through another for a 12-yard touchdown run on the Panthers first possession Sunday. But such moments are fading for Newton, and the Falcons were capable of capitalizing on the cruelties time has played on the quarterback. One interception and the fumble were both on Newton.

The Falcons have four games left – at San Francisco next week, followed by games against Detroit, Buffalo and New Orleans. They came here with big plans. “We got to go 5-0. That’s one game down,” Walker said. There’s a little more wiggle room than that, but not much. Three more wins would get them to nine total, maybe enough to squeeze into a NFC postseason.

“We’ve got ourselves in a position where we’re still in the mix,” Ryan said. “That’s all you can hope for this time of year. You want to be in competitive games that mean something. Certainly, next week (in San Francisco) is that for us.”

Feels so odd this year with this team to be conflating the words “Falcons” and “playoffs.” It just sounds, if not wrong, at least so very temporary. But a team in the hunt gave us no other choice Sunday.

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