Schedule continues to favor Falcons, who continue to need it

FLOWERY BRANCH — The offense continues its search for its most efficient self.

The defense appears to be moving forward, aided by an ever-forgiving array of opposing quarterbacks.

So the Falcons’ endeavor for a winning season and a playoff berth arrives at its 13th game of the season, the record (6-6) as level as it was before the season opener, the questions about the team still open for debate.

How much faith should be placed in the team’s modest two-game win streak, achieved as it was against a team (the Saints) that outgained the Falcons by nearly 50 yards but failed to score a touchdown in five red-zone trips and another team (the Jets) whose quarterback was making his second career start?

Is there any additional evidence that quarterback Desmond Ridder is the long-term solution for coach Arthur Smith’s team? On the plus side, he returned home from New Jersey with a win and without a turnover to his name. The latter accomplishment was the first in a start since the fifth game of the season. On the other hand, he fumbled the game’s first snap, had an interception wiped out by a penalty and completed fewer passes and accumulated fewer yards than Jets counterpart Tim Boyle, whose performance compelled his team to release him.

Can a team that has averaged 20.5 points per game in its six wins – an average exceeded in all three games played by backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke – expect to keep pocketing victories with such a middling attack?

In this pivotal season for Smith, the uncertainty may yet extend, as the Falcons’ next competitor to dare impede them on their march to modest progress is as relatively unimpressive (save one especially concerning wide receiver, the prodigious Mike Evans) as their preceding opponents.

Please extend a welcome to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, vanquished in six of their past eight games with a defense that ranks 27th in the NFL and an offense that ranks a comparatively robust 23rd.

The Falcons’ truly advantageous schedule continues. Three of the Falcons’ first 12 opponents hold winning records going into Sunday (Jaguars, Texans and Lions). Their six wins have been scored over teams with a combined 28-44 record. The best quarterback that they’ve faced (judged by ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating) is Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence, who ranks ninth.

This is a team that needs to steer clear of the College Football Playoff selection committee.

And yet, Sunday’s game carries stakes as meaningful as Smith has encountered in his three-year stewardship of the team, particularly at this late juncture. With a win, the Falcons will gain a two-game lead over Tampa Bay (tied with the Saints at 5-7 for second in the division) and earn a sweep over the Buccaneers. They’ve not breathed December air as a winning team since 2017. Or, for that matter, November air.

Starting in 2018, the latest into a season that the Falcons have held a winning record was when Younghoe Koo’s game-ending field goal claimed a victory over the same Buccaneers on Oct. 22 to improve to 4-3.

Again, Sunday offers the opportunity for this team to demonstrate its merits as a unit with capabilities beyond outmaneuvering opponents with unsteady quarterbacking, the team’s well-worn niche being opposing quarterbacks new to the job or recently returned to it. The Falcons have held their past two opponents, the Saints and Jets, without a touchdown – they’re the first team in the NFL to accomplish the feat this season. It would suggest a defense that has found its footing after losing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.

“When those guys lose a guy like Grady, it’s hard to replace, and we’re trying to figure out who’s going to be the next guy,” assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray said Wednesday. “Then, all of a sudden, you need two guys to fill his role. And once the guys got comfortable and say, ‘Hey, I’m a starter in the NFL,’ you see the run game picks back up because it’s always like that.”

The numbers testify to the defense’s much-improved play. Defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen’s unit ranks first in red-zone touchdown percentage at 37.1% after allowing touchdowns on 55% of opponent red-zone possessions last season. The Falcons also rank seventh in scoring defense (20 points per game) and 10th in total defense (315.9 yards per game).

On the other side, Smith has taken delight in mashing the ball down opponents’ throats. They have run the ball 75 times in their modest two-game win streak and now rank sixth in the league in rushing, at 135.2 yards per game. A similar plan figures to be in the offing Sunday against the Buccaneers, whom the Falcons force fed 38 rushes for 156 yards in the teams’ first meeting, the game won on Koo’s foot.

But in both games, matched against ordinary offenses, the Falcons offense was outgained, managed no plays of 30 yards or more (while the Saints and Jets totaled four) and scored a total of three touchdowns.

The Falcons’ no-touchdown streak presumably can’t last forever. The Buccaneers will test it with Evans, who has made a specialty of riddling the Falcons and could have the extra benefit Sunday of doing so against an impaired Falcons secondary. (No. 1 cornerback A.J. Terrell was in concussion protocol as of Thursday after suffering a head injury in the Jets game.)

“The name of the game is can you win that game?” Smith said. “Trust me, everybody wants to pitch a shutout on defense. You want to score as many points as you can. At the end of the day, you have to find a way to win, and you have to find a way to improve. "

The very fortunate turn for the Falcons is that they can continue to muddle forward and advance upon their first playoff berth since 2017. For as .500-centric as the opposition has been in the first 12 games, so it will be in the final five.

The remaining games after Tampa Bay are at Carolina (1-11), Indianapolis (7-5), at Chicago (4-8) and at New Orleans (5-7). That’s three games against teams with losing records and a home game against a team that has won four games in a row but also has won five of its seven games by one possession.

Should the Falcons win Sunday to reach 7-6, a 10-win season and a division title would seem within their grasp. And if that were to happen, a playoff game (or games?) would answer all remaining questions about them.